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Why the end of treatment is emotionally the most difficult time

The end of treatment for cancer is a momentous occasion and one many people look forward to. A time to pop champagne corks and celebrate being released from the constraints of treatment. Freedom to resume life and never give cancer a further thought. I think the end of treatment for cancer is the most difficult time of all.

The diagnosis of cancer is often a time of shock and change as we try to process the shock and impact cancer has on us and our lives. The treatment for cancer is frequently about practically managing appointments, treatment and side effects and grabbing snippets of our lives that were. However, the end of treatment is often when the emotional impact of cancer hits full pelt and we have to learn to live with what has happened. We are not prepared for this because up until this point cancer has centred around receiving medical treatment to save our lives.

The physical recovery from cancer treatment often takes much longer that the treatment itself. There may also be on going medication to take with further side effects to manage. There may also be scars and changes to body looks or functions to live with. There may be an expectation or pressure from friends, family or work settings to be who you were before cancer.

Cancer has a larger emotional impact than other illnesses and injuries and we cannot move on from cancer in line with our previous experience of these. Unlike a broken limb cancer never quite leaves, there may be ongoing tests, check-ups and treatments for many years to come. There may be fear of a recurrence of cancer which can cause long term emotional distress if unaddressed.

When we become cancer patients we receive support from a medical team and probably the people in our lives. This may end as abruptly as it started at the end of the medical treatment and there maybe feelings of loss and abandonment as we wonder how we can feel safe again having had a life threatening illness.

The emotional impact of cancer is not supported in the same way the medical treatment is and this becomes highlighted at the end of treatment. This can leave people trapped and unable to engage with their lives. Recovery should be seen as equally as important as treatment so that people can return to living fully functioning lives having recovered from the impact cancer. In my utopian world there should be a national, standardised personalised programme to support cancer patients at the end of treatment.

Just as cancer instantly sucked me into a new world it spat me back out just as quickly at the end of treatment. I was lost and scared. I had no idea who I was anymore and consequently how to connect with my life. Nothing felt safe. I had lost large chunks of my life and in the process myself. Cancer had invaded my body and now it was making a start on my mind.

The end of cancer treatment was a confusing time. I felt I should have been happy at surviving the treatment, Bonnie appeared healthy and I was free to carry on with my life. However, I felt terrified about the future and guilty at what I had put my friends and family through. Although I hated the hospital appointments they also offered me safety and security, someone was checking me regularly.

Initially I focused on resolving the impact of cancer through my behaviour by living as healthily as possible to reduce the risk of a recurrence. I also kept constantly busy so I didn’t have to experience any of the emotions cancer created. This strategy of course failed as my unprocessed emotions took me to the brink of a breakdown.

As I worked through my depression, fear and anger I began to realise my emotional recovery lay in making the most of every single second of my life so I would have as few regrets as possible. I am not in control of whether I have a further diagnosis of cancer or not but I am in control of creating and living a meaningful life. I have a new set of values post cancer treatment and base my life on these. I travel as often as I can, my life is as stress free as possible, I help other cancer patients and I am the best mum I can be to my gorgeous girls. Cancer will never fully leave my life but I have learnt to live with it.

How was the end of cancer treatment for you? Was it as you expected? How did you manage your thoughts and emotions at this time?

This post is part of our 'Looking Back To Go Forward' series, written by a mum called Rebecca. She was diagnosed with breast cancer while pregnant with her second child. Seven years after her diagnosis and treatment, she reflects on that time, how it affected her and some of the unexpected feelings and experiences it brought up.


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