Life After Cancer Treatment: 10 Small Steps That Lead to Big Results

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Cancer changes your life forever. Once you accept there’s no going back, it’s time to determine your “new normal” — and figure out how to embrace it. Here are 10 actions you can take right now that will help put you back on the path to health and happiness.


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Accept the fact that you can’t go back

Cancer changes you forever, and in all ways. Physically, you’ve probably replaced part of your body with surgical scars; mentally, you may be dealing with memory or other cognitive issues related to treatment. But the biggest change might be emotional: You’ve forever lost your former assumption of good health. As a survivor, you find yourself worrying about small physical issues you would have brushed off in the past. Accept all of this; then make a conscious decision to embrace the “new you.”


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Understand your health plan going forward

Finishing cancer treatment can be scary; it helps to fully understand what comes next. Your oncologist will see you regularly, probably every three months at first. But basically, you’re transitioning to self-care. Best first step? Ask your oncologist for a treatment summary and a survivorship care plan. The first document details all treatment up to now. Give your primary care provider a copy. The second document is your plan going forward. Refer to it often; it’s the map that will help return you to good health.


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Put your house in order

Treatment was probably a mess as far as keeping up with paperwork goes. It’s time to put cancer behind you, and that means cleaning house. Go through your papers, separating medical from financial; discard what you no longer need. If you have any insurance issues with the hospital, meet with a financial representative to figure things out. Leftover medical apparatus or drugs? Get rid of it all. You don’t need those reminders of what you’ve been through.


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‘So you’re cured, right?’ Figure out your response

Friends, colleagues, and even more distant family members will assume that once you finish treatment, you’re cured: The cancer is gone, and you can pick up your life where you left off. But as a survivor, you understand there’s always a chance of recurrence, even if very small. Rather than waffle in the face of this question, decide ahead of time what you’ll say: “Yes, the cancer’s gone.” Or “There’s a small chance it might come back, but yes, I’m feeling better and hoping for the best.”


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Exercise every day — starting now

You don’t have to join a gym or sign up for a class to exercise — although both are helpful, any type of exercise is key to getting yourself back to feeling somewhat normal. Sure, you’re wrung out from months of treatment, so start small. Get up and walk around the house. Go up and down stairs. Then walk around the neighborhood, gradually going farther. The key is to move — as often and as much as you can. You’ll be surprised how quickly small steps, taken regularly, make you feel better.


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If you’re employed, meet with your company’s human resources team

Most people don’t know what it’s like to go through cancer treatment and how it affects you afterward. That means it’s up to you to let your employer know whether your capabilities have changed and whether you need any accommodations to continue to work effectively. You may need to off-load certain parts of your job until you’re stronger, either mentally or physically. So turn to your HR team for help; they understand and can implement the labor laws surrounding health issues in the workplace.


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Be prepared to forgive friends or family who disappeared

All of us survivors have experienced it: a close friend or family member who suddenly makes herself scarce when she learns of your cancer. Unfortunately, some people simply can’t deal with such a scary situation. Now that you’re on the road to recovery, this person’s almost certainly experiencing some incredible guilt. Take the high road: Approach her with no hard feelings, and set up a date to get together. Then work on recapturing what you had: no grudges, no recriminations.


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Find your rhythm

You’re on the road to recovery, so determine the optimum pace at which you’ll travel. Too slow, and it’s hard to see progress; too fast, and it’s difficult to keep it up for the long haul. You probably won’t heal as quickly as you hope; patience is key. Take small steps at first, but take them every day — no time off for good behavior! Regular exercise, a dietary plan to reach your optimum weight, and frequent positive social interactions with friends and family are all key to healing.


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Thank everyone

As a cancer patient, you no doubt received care from all kinds of people: not just your immediate medical team, but the scheduler in radiation, and the nurse who assisted you with those first steps after surgery. It may seem old-fashioned, but say thank you — via email, or with a physical card — to the department in general and/or to the specific people who helped you. They’ll appreciate it, and you may just need them again in the future, so why not leave a positive impression?


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Pay it forward

Now that you’re a cancer treatment veteran, you have a lot of valuable experience you can share with others. You know that the earlier in the day you schedule radiation, the less time you’ll spend in the waiting room. You know that the oncology department’s family service team offers free massages on Tuesday and Thursday. And you know where to go for free coffee and snacks. Seek out your cancer center’s volunteer department, and see what you can do to help. You survived; it’s time to give back.