10 Steps for Coming Back From Cancer

Patient Expert

If you’ve recently finished breast cancer treatment (or are about to), how do you transition from patient to survivor? Read these 10 tips for a positive transition — then jump back into life.

1. Believe the cancer is gone

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Start with a positive mindset. All that misery you just went through with treatment? It was worth it. You’re cancer free. (There’s no proof that this isn’t true — so why not believe it?)

2. Make a fresh start

To avoid unpleasant reminders, get rid of all your treatment paraphernalia: leftover drugs (dispose of them responsibly, please), stained towels or T-shirts, cloth bandages, the piles of literature you collected. Keep a single lucky talisman if you like, but the rest? Out the door.

3. Follow a reasonable schedule

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DO NOT raise your hand for the first three volunteer opportunities that come along, simply because you feel guilty about having taken time off! Resume responsibilities gradually. Family comes first, then work, then any extras. Save the superwoman act for a year or two down the road.

4. Be ready to answer questions

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“How do you feel?” “Are you cured?” Family and friends will ask. Decide ahead of time on stock answers, so you’re not constantly reviewing the possibilities in your mind (and dwelling on them). “I’m not there yet, but definitely feeling better every day.” “The doctor says there’s no evidence of cancer — so that’s my story and I’m sticking with it!” Smile a lot; it’ll help you and everyone around you.

5. Deal with feelings of abandonment

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“Who’s taking care of me now?” It’s a very common reaction to finishing treatment. After all these months of weekly and often daily care, it’s scary to be out on your own. It's OK to feel this way, though, and if you're aware that you are surrounded by those that love you, it can help.

6. Understand lasting effects

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Side effects of treatment disappear. Lasting effects will be with you for awhile — perhaps forever. Nerve damage after mastectomy is common. Many women develop life-altering neuropathy as a result of chemotherapy. Identify what’s going on; speak to your oncologist about it, and start learning to deal with it — and learn to accept that it might be permanent.

7. Be patient; healing takes time

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Chemo may linger in your system for up to three months. Your hair will grow back slowly. Pain from radiation diminishes bit by bit. Just know that every day that passes, you’re another step closer to feeling completely better.

8. Say thank you

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Think of all the caring nurses and doctors you’ve bonded with over the past six months or year! An email or thank-you note — something your medical team can forward, or hang on the bulletin board — will be highly appreciated. Here’s an example of a thank you note I emailed to my care team at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center; it ended up being published in Dartmouth Medicine magazine.

9. Meet with the finance folks at the hospital

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Now that you feel well enough to look at your medical bills, they’ll probably make you feel sick all over again! Being proactive about bills and a payment plan will put you in control of the situation and lessen your anxiety. Most hospitals will let you pay large bills on an extended schedule. And hospital social workers can help you figure out any lingering insurance issues.

10. Ask your doctor for a survivorship plan

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Also known as a transitional care plan (TCP), this is a document that you should file away and refer to as needed. According to the Norris Cotton Cancer Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire, a National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, a TCP should include the following information:

  • Diagnosis: Exactly what the patient had, including detailed test results.
  • Treatment: What therapies the patients received (surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation, for example).
  • Prognosis: Expected outcomes for the patient after treatment.
  • Follow-up: What the patient needs to do from this point on to deal with side effects of treatment or chronic problems, as well as health screening recommendations.

If your medical center doesn’t automatically offer you a TCP or survivorship plan, the American Cancer Society offers links to a number of sample plans. Choose one, and take the time to get it filled out. As the months pass and memories of your cancer experience fade, it’s a good document to have on hand — just in case.

See more helpful articles:

Fear of Recurrence: Where Do You Stand?

Breast Cancer Treatment: Five Years Later

A Guide to Survivorship: Life After Treatment