The "New Normal": Life After Cancer Treatment

Cancer is a frightening and even traumatic experience not only for patients but for caregivers. But once diagnosis and treatment are over, people who cared for a loved one may expect to put it behind them and go back to their normal life.

As the National Cancer Institute (NCI) explains, though, that’s not usually the case. Caregivers are faced with a “new normal” that may make life seem more forbidding and uncertain. Here, experts from the NCI take a look at a situation that’s often neglected, and share some strategies for coping:

“Now what do I do?” A caregiver may think he or she is the only one who has this reaction, but it’s common, the NCI says. Adjust at your own pace to the activities you’ve almost forgotten about. Don’t rush. The NCI says patients and caregivers can be pressured to return to “the way things were” before the occurrence of cancer. But, the experts stress, this is still a time of emotional stress.

A caregiver normally has a number of roles and may be wondering if these roles still exist. Maybe you were in charge of many decisions, while your loved one didn’t take part. Are you still responsible for those decisions? If you left work to care for your loved one, do you return now? When will your loved one take on his or her former roles? The NCI advises flexibility and patience. The answer to each question varies, and there won’t be an overnight or comprehensive solution.

You also have newly free time since you aren’t taking your loved one to the doctor or for tests and treatments. How you use that free time depends on what will make you feel less stressed. You might want to take a vacation to unwind, or re-focus your attention on home, work and family issues.

Some caregivers, the NCI says, have even more intense feelings after the end of treatment, because they now have time to process their emotions. And the emotions can be paradoxical. You can feel both happy and sad – happy that your loved one is through with treatment, but sad or anxious that you are no longer doing something to help fight the illness.

With the end of your caregiving duties, you may feel lonely and isolated as well. Your friends and family may return to their daily lives, leaving you alone. You may feel that you no longer have the safety net of your loved one’s health care team. You can remain almost trapped in your home because you fear leaving in case something happens to your loved one. And though you’re lonely, you could feel that you can’t communicate with people who haven’t had your experience.

The NCI experts emphasize that these feelings are normal. You don’t need to pretend that everything’s suddenly great. Give yourself the time you need to come to terms with what you and your loved one have just endured.

But if you feel sad or despairing for more than a few weeks, the NCI says, that can indicate depression. Other symptoms of depression and anxiety include loss of appetite, crying every day, having panic attacks, and thinking about harming yourself or others. If you have any of these symptoms, talk with a counselor or therapist.

Caregivers usually put aside their own needs while they look after their loved one. The NCI suggests that in this new phase of your life, you do something for yourself every day. This can include exercising; going shopping; resuming a hobby or activity; taking a walk or a drive. You can also benefit by finding comfort outside your usual circle. Think about joining a support group or a faith community.

All in all, the “new normal” can be surprisingly tough. But being patient with yourself, getting the help you need, and giving yourself time to heal can help you recover from the frightening experience you and your loved one have been through.

For more information, visit the National Cancer Institute.

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