Cancer survivors: Managing your emotions after cancer treatment

Get to know the emotions that are common for cancer survivors and how to manage your feelings. Find out what's typical and what indicates you should consider getting help.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

When you began your cancer treatment, you couldn't wait for the day you'd finish. But now that you've completed your treatment, you aren't sure if you're ready for life after treatment as a cancer survivor.

With your treatment completed, you'll likely see your cancer care team less often. Though you, your friends and your family are all eager to return to a more typical life, it can be scary. You might worry about meeting less often with the health care providers who supported you through your care.

Everything you're feeling right now is typical for cancer survivors. Recovering from cancer treatment isn't just about your body. It's also about healing your mind.

Take time to acknowledge the fear, grief and sense of isolation you might be feeling right now. Then take steps to understand why you feel these emotions and what you can do about them.

Fear of recurrence in cancer survivors

When cancer comes back after treatment it's called a cancer recurrence. Fear of cancer coming back is common in cancer survivors. Though they may go years without any sign of disease, cancer survivors say the thought of recurrence is always with them. You might worry that every ache or pain is a sign of your cancer recurring. Eventually these fears will fade, though they may never go away completely.

Cope with your fear by being honest with yourself about your feelings. Try not to feel guilty about your feelings or ignore them in hopes that they'll go away. Ask your provider about what you can do to reduce your chance of a cancer recurrence.

Once you've done all you can to reduce that risk, acknowledge your fears. Take control of those fears and do what you can to influence your future health. Try to:

  • Take care of your body. Focus on keeping yourself healthy. Eat a healthy diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables. Fit exercise into your day. Go easy at first, but try to increase the intensity and amount of exercise you get as you recover. Get enough sleep so that you wake feeling refreshed.

    These actions may help your body recover from cancer treatment and also help put your mind at ease by giving you a greater sense of control over your life.

  • Go to all of your follow-up appointments. You may fear the worst when it's time for your next follow-up appointment. Don't let that stop you from going.

    Use the time with your provider to ask questions about any symptoms that worry you. Write down your concerns and discuss them at your next appointment. If you have a friend or family member you trust, bring that person with you for support.

    Ask about your risk of recurrence and what symptoms to watch for. Knowing more may help you feel more in control.

  • Get all of your follow-up tests. Discuss with your provider plans for follow-up and monitoring of your cancer. Together, you will formulate a specific follow-up plan based on your individual situation. Not everyone needs regular scans or blood tests.

  • Ask your provider about creating a plan to look for late side effects of cancer therapy. Many cancer treatments can cause side effects years later. Ask your provider whether you will need scans and regular appointments.

  • Be open about your fears. Express your concerns to your friends, family, other cancer survivors, and your provider or a counselor. If you're uncomfortable with the idea of discussing your fears, try recording your thoughts in a journal.
  • Keep busy. Get up, get dressed and get out of the house when you can. Find activities that will take your mind off your fears. Have a plan and routine for every day.

Most cancer survivors report that the fear of recurrence fades with time. But certain events can trigger your fears. The feelings might be especially strong before follow-up visits to your provider or around the anniversary of your cancer diagnosis.

Stress in cancer survivors

When you were diagnosed with cancer, you might have focused completely on your treatment and getting healthy. Now that you've completed treatment, all those projects around the home and the things on your to-do list are competing for your attention. This can make you feel stressed and overwhelmed. You will only have so much energy, so learn to say no.

Don't feel you need to do everything at once. Take time for yourself as you establish a new daily routine. Try exercising, talking with other cancer survivors and taking time for activities you enjoy.

Depression and anxiety in cancer survivors

Lingering feelings of sadness and anger can interfere with your daily life. For many people, these feelings become less intense with time. But for others, these feelings can develop into depression.

Tell your provider about your feelings. If needed, you can be referred to someone who can help you through talk therapy, medication or both. Early diagnosis and prompt treatment are keys to successfully overcoming depression.

Self-consciousness in cancer survivors

If surgery or other treatment changed your appearance, you might feel self-conscious about your body.

Changes in skin color, weight gain or loss, the loss of a limb, or the placement of an ostomy might make you feel like you'd rather stay home, away from other people. You might withdraw from friends and family. Self-consciousness can strain your relationship with your partner if you don't feel worthy of love or affection.

Take time to grieve. But also learn to focus on the ways cancer has made you a stronger person. Realize that you're more than the scars that cancer has left behind. When you're feeling more confident about yourself, others will feel more comfortable around you.

Loneliness in cancer survivors

You might feel as if others can't understand what you've been through. This makes it hard to relate to other people and can lead to loneliness. Friends and family might be unsure of how to help you. Some people may even be afraid of you because you've had cancer. People who haven't been on this journey may not be able to relate to what you've gone through.

Don't deal with loneliness on your own. Consider joining a support group with other cancer survivors who are having the same emotions you are. Contact your local chapter of the American Cancer Society for more information. Or try an online message board for cancer survivors, such as the American Cancer Society's Cancer Survivors Network.

Where to go for help

Sometimes talking with friends or family can help. But you might feel like those people can't truly understand what you're going through. You might consider talking to:

  • A therapist. Your provider may be able to refer you to a mental health provider who can help you sort through your emotions and come up with ways to deal with your feelings.
  • Other cancer survivors. Support groups, whether in your community or online, provide a great place to share your feelings and hear from others who are going through what you're experiencing. You can learn new ways of coping with fears.

    You also can offer your own expertise to other people who are going through active treatment and help them in their journey.

Devise your own plan for coping with your emotions. Have an open mind and try different strategies to find out what works best for you. Make your health a priority.

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Oct. 19, 2022 See more In-depth

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