Surviving and Thriving: Returning to Emotional Equilibrium After Cancer

by PJ Hamel Patient Expert

Once you finish active cancer treatment, there can be a real emotional letdown. The medical team that’s rallied around your cause is gone; you might suddenly feel deserted and scared. How do you handle your feelings of abandonment? How do you move forward? Making a successful transition from patient to survivor is all about emotions — and it’s an important step in discovering and accepting your “new normal.”

Doctor reassuringly holding patient's hand.

You’re not alone

Even though you’re not seeing him or her regularly, you’re still under your oncologist’s care. Your doctor has no doubt mapped out a plan for your further treatment; it’s just that rather than weekly appointments, the treatment is “Let’s see you every six months to make sure everything’s OK.” Don’t hesitate to call if you’re not feeling right, or have questions about your continuing recovery. That’s what the doctor is there for: to make sure you stay well.

Cheerful senior woman sitting on the beach.

Believe you’re well

Embrace the belief that your cancer is gone. Breast cancer is very curable these days; according to the American Cancer Society, the overall survival rate for breast cancer is 86 percent — and that includes even the most advanced cases. The National Cancer Institute’s SEER statistics reveal a relative five-year survival rate of nearly 99 percent for the more than half of all survivors diagnosed with localized breast cancer. Who wouldn’t like those odds?

Two senior women exercising together.


Exercise does you a world of good physically, but it’s also key to your emotional health. When you exercise, your body releases a chemical called endorphin; a number of studies have shown endorphins can reduce depression, as well as relieve pain and produce euphoria (the famous “runner’s high”). But you don’t need to go to the gym to exercise; simply taking a long walk outdoors can be a wonderful stress-reliever. Take a deep breath and look at the sky. How can you not feel calm?

Happy woman relaxing in bed.

You choose

Pre-cancer, you probably rushed from one activity to the next, ticking off items on a to-do list that never seemed to get any shorter. During cancer treatment, there are undoubtedly some responsibilities you dropped; do you really have to pick them up again? It’s super-easy to slip back into old habits; change dies hard. But if doing less laundry, ditching your spot on the town historic committee, or getting up 15 minutes later will make you happy, then make them happen!

Breast cancer support group.

Offer a hand

Now that you’ve successfully navigated the cancer journey, why not share your experience with those just starting out? Think of everything you’ve learned, from the reality of hair loss to the best source for mastectomy swimwear. Find out if your hospital has a support group or “buddy” program you can join, and make the time to do it. You’ll find helping others helps yourself.

Smiling woman stretching on a porch in the morning.

Make gratitude your attitude

There’s not much you can ultimately control in your life. But you absolutely can work to control your attitude. How often do you feel grateful? Probably not often enough, especially given what a good feeling it is. If you think you don’t have much to be thankful for, reset the bar. The sun rising, being alive, knowing that there are innocent children in the world — all of these can be cause for gratitude if you decide they are.

Glass half full of water.

Don’t fall into old (bad) habits

Your “new normal” is the perfect opportunity to drop old emotional habits and embrace a new, more positive way of life. If you’ve always been a “glass half empty” person, flip your perception. Do you set the emotional bar too high, and then get angry when friends and family fail to love and support you as you expect? Lower your expectations. We’re all human, doing the best we can with the cards we’ve been dealt. Show love to those around you; the rest will take care of itself.

Counselor and patient talking.

Get professional help

There’s nothing wrong — and much that’s right — with seeking help from a mental health professional when you need it. If you simply can’t get past the funk you fell into during or after cancer, a doctor can determine what course of treatment might help. Behavioral therapy can alter negative patterns in your life; antidepressants can restore the chemical balance in your brain that chemo might have helped destroy. No guilt, all gain. Go for it.

Worried middle age woman.

Don’t beat yourself up

Finally, are you scared or sad to see treatment end — and feeling guilty about it? It’s not unusual to miss an established, safe routine, even when that routine involved fatigue, sickness, and fear. Accept what you feel, and recognize it for what it is: a natural reaction, one that many people have, and one that, with time, you’ll get past.

PJ Hamel
Meet Our Writer
PJ Hamel

PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via