Coping with feelings after cancer treatment

The end of treatment is a time when people often expect to feel relieved, happy and able to get on with life again.
 
But it isn’t unusual to feel quite low and lost, especially during the first few months. And just as you need to take care of your body after treatment ends, you also need to take care of your emotions. 
 
In this section, we describe some feelings and emotions you may have. We also give you tips for coping and helping yourself.
 
Use this information in whatever way works best for you. You can read it from beginning to end. Or you can just refer to the sections you need.

If you do not understand something that has been written or if you have any questions, call our Cancer Nurseline on 1800 200 700 and speak in confidence with a specialist nurse. 

Fear of cancer coming back

It is natural to be afraid the cancer will come back. As a result, you might worry about every ache or pain. In time, your fears will fade though they may never go away completely. 
 

What can I do to help myself?

Being well informed and knowing where to go for help and support can help you cope better with your fears.
 
 
To take control of your fears, you can:
 
  • Learn about your cancer and the possible late and long-term side-effects you may have.  Read our section on managing side-effects of your cancer treatment .
  • Know what symptoms to watch out for.
  • Communicate with your oncology team and know who to call if you if you have any questions about symptoms or treatment side-effects.
  • Take care of your body and stay healthy. Click here to read our section on staying healthy after cancer.  
  • Go to all of your follow-up appointments.
  • Finding ways to relax, visualise or meditate will help ease your fears and anxieties. 

For more information and guidelines on relaxation, visualisation therapy and meditation, read pages 36–38 of our guide  The Emotional Effects of Cancer. You can also call our Cancer Nurseline on 1800 200 700 to ask for a free print copy.

You can also cope with your fears by being honest with yourself about your feelings. Talk about your concerns with your friends, family, other cancer survivors or your doctor. If you are not comfortable talking about your fears, try writing your thoughts down in a diary.

Loneliness

After your treatment ends, you may feel abandoned and lonely. It can feel like you are on your own because you get less attention and support from your doctors and nurses.
It is also normal to feel cut off from other people after cancer treatment. Often, friends and family want to help, but they don't know how. 

What can I do to help myself?

Try to find other sources of support to replace the emotional support you received from your doctors and nurses:
 
  • Our Cancer Nurseline Freephone 1800 200 700. Call our Cancer Nurseline and speak to one of our cancer nurses for confidential advice, support and information. The Cancer Nurseline is open Monday to Thursday from 9am–6pm and Friday from 9am–5pm. You can also email us on cancernurseline@irishcancer.ie or visit our Online Community
     
  • Our Survivor Support. Speak to someone who has been through a cancer diagnosis. Our trained volunteers are available to provide emotional and practical support to anyone going through or finished with their treatment.
     
  • Support in your area. We work with cancer support groups and centres across the country to ensure cancer patients have access to confidential support including counselling.
     

Stress

When you were going through treatment, you may have put concerns such as finances, work and family issues to one side. Now that treatment is over, you may feel overwhelmed by all you have to do.
 
Remember to do things at your own pace. You don’t have to sort everything out at once. It is important to be patient and kind with yourself. 
 

What can I do to help myself?
 

Finding ways to reduce or control the stress in your life may also help you feel better. Spending time doing any activity that makes you feel calm or relaxed may help.
 
For example:
 
Take exercise The benefits of exercise on mood are well known. So it is important to get regular exercise or just ‘keep moving’. Being physically active can also improve the side-effects of treatment and prevent long-term side-effects. For more information read our section on staying healthy after cancer.  
 
Release tension. At times things may get on top of you and you may need to let off steam. Sometimes releasing tension even for a few minutes can help. Some ways to help release emotions inside include: 
  • A good scream
  • Thumping a cushion or pillow
  • Turning music up very loud
  • Having a good cry
  • Writing things down
Don’t worry about what your neighbours will think or say. None of these actions will do anyone any harm. But they may leave you feeling much better. 
 
Relax, visualise or meditate. Finding ways to relax, visualise or mediate will help ease your fears and anxieties. The positive effects of these methods have been well researched.
 
They may also help with pain and other symptoms too. You may need some instruction or guidance with these methods at first, but after a while you should be able to do them by yourself.
 
Give them a try, but they may not suit everyone. 

For more information and guidelines on relaxation, visualisation therapy and meditation, see pages 36–38 of our booklet The Emotional Effects of Cancer. You can download the guide or call the National Cancer Helpline on 1800 200 700 to ask for a free print copy. 

 
Many of the support groups and centres we work with offer a wide range of services including courses on stress management and relaxation. Find your nearest cancer support centre here.
 
 

Anger

You may find yourself feeling angry about having cancer or about things that happened to you during your diagnosis or treatment.
 
You may also feel angry as you adjust to life after treatment and find that it is not as you had expected. Healing your mind is also a part of recovering from cancer. This may take some time. 
 

What can I do to help myself?

You may able to use some of the energy of your anger to support yourself. For example, your anger may help you to become clearer about what you do and don’t want in your life.
 
Anger may motivate you to take action. But when you bottle anger up, it can get in the way of you taking care of yourself and moving on.
 
Start by simply telling yourself and those closest to you that you are angry. Just saying the words ‘I am angry’ can be a relief. 
 
If you are holding in your feelings because there is no one you feel you can talk to, you may find it helpful to have some counselling. For more information, see the section below on getting professional help.  

Depression

It is natural to feel some sadness during and after your illness. At times you may feel low and not your usual self. If nothing cheers you up and you are feeling low for several weeks, it may be a sign that you are depressed.
 
Depression can develop slowly and may be hard for you or your family to recognise at first. Other times, it can come on very suddenly, where you feel plunged into despair and feel rather hopeless.
 
Depression is more than just feeling sad or blue. It is a significant medical condition that affects thoughts, feelings, and the ability to function in everyday life. It can occur at any age and is more common than you might think.
 
Depression affects one in five people at some point in their lives. In this illness, recovery takes time. And because people do not cause their depression in the first place, they cannot just ‘pull themselves together’ or ‘snap out of it’.
 
Having depression does not mean that you are a failure either.
 

What can I do to help myself?

It is important to remember that depression can be successfully treated.
 
So there is no need to feel you are not coping if you ask for help. If you feel that your low moods are getting the better of you, talk to someone close to you who is a good listener. It is not always easy to talk about emotional problems.

Often they can be hard to share with loved ones. If you feel comfortable discussing personal worries with your doctor or nurse, they may be able to help you.

 
Talking to a counsellor or psychotherapist, who is not personally involved in your situation, can be a great help too. They can help you to make sense of your thoughts, feelings and ideas. 

For more information, see the section below on getting professional help . You can also call  our Cancer Nurseline on 1800 200 700 for more advice.

Tips and Hints- expressing your feelings

  • Acknowledge any strong emotions. For example, if you feel angry or very sad.
  • Describe your feelings rather than simply displaying them.
  • Don’t feel guilty or ‘wrong’ about the way you feel – these feelings are normal.
  • It’s okay to admit that you are uncertain about the future
  • Don’t force yourself to speak when you don’t want to. You may just want to hold someone’s hand or get a hug.
  • Everybody has some regrets. Regrets are reduced when they are shared.
  • It’s good to cry

 When your family and friends don't understand

After treatment ends, your family and friends may not be prepared for the fact that recovery takes time. They might expect you to be back to ‘normal’ much faster than you feel you can be. It can be hard to let them know that you still need their help and support. You may also feel guilty about what your family and friends have been through because of your illness. But you cannot let this get in the way of your needs. 
 

What can I do to help myself and those close to me?

The main thing to remember is that being honest with those close to you really helps. Let your family and friends know that you understand it is hard from them too.
 
Tell them that you appreciate all they have already done to help you. But you still need their support. As you build your ‘new’ life with those close to you, things are likely to become easier. 


Relationships and sexuality

After treatment, beginning or renewing a sexual relationship may fill you with anxiety and doubts: 
  • Your self-esteem may be low because of changes to your body, making you feel less confident sexually. 
     
  • You may be slow to resume any kind of sexual activity, especially if your energy levels are low. It may take some time before you feel emotionally and physically ready for sex. 

What can I do to help myself?
 

Not everyone experiences intimate relationships in the same way: they are unique to each of us. While you may have no desire for sex, you may still want to feel close to your partner.
 
Hugging, kissing, holding hands or even massage may satisfy you, or you may have other special ways to feel close.
 
How you communicate with your partner is vital at this time. Once you and your partner share your feelings and try to support one another, you should be able to enjoy sex and feel fulfilled in time. There is no perfect time for resuming sex. Do it in your own time and at your own pace, but don’t rush things at first. 
 
Talk to your partner about any sexual concerns you have. It may be hard at first but remember they are probably concerned too. Most loving partners will want to be close to you, understand how you feel and do things in your time.
 
If you are not in a relationship you may still want to talk about your sexual concerns. Find someone you trust to discuss your feelings, for example, a friend, your doctor or a counsellor. 
 
You may feel worried about starting a new relationship. You may not know how or when to tell a new partner that you have had cancer or you may feel self-conscious about your body.
 
However, the more you get to know your partner, the more you can relax and talk about all your life events. 

What if I need professional help?

Sometimes your emotions may be too strong to cope with by yourself. Nothing you do or say may seem to improve how you feel. If your emotions prevent you from carrying out normal activities, such as eating or sleeping, or affect the quality of your life, you should ask for help. Don’t feel that your emotions are trivial or less important than your physical symptoms.
 
Above all, don’t feel guilty or disappointed if you have to ask for help. 
 
Talk to your GP (family doctor) about your anxiety, low moods or strong emotions. Tell the doctor exactly how you feel and focus on what concerns you the most. For example, if you have no desire to get out of bed and wash every day. The doctor will decide what kind of therapy you need and give you advice. If you are unhappy with your diagnosis or the treatment your doctor has advised, you can always get a second opinion.
 

More professional help

Depending on the severity of your anxiety or depression, you may need more professional help. There are many members of the wider healthcare team who may be able to help you cope with your feelings and emotions. Each has a different role to play, but usually you will only need to see one or two professionals.
 
For example, you may need to see both a psychiatrist and a counsellor for a short while.
 
Not all of these will be available in your area, but your community welfare officer or GP can help you find those that are:
 
  • Counsellor – A counsellor is trained to help people talk through their problems and adapt to their situation. In most cases, they do not give advice or answers but guide you until you find the answers within yourself.
     
  • Clinical psychologist – A clinical psychologist is specialised in the treatment of anxiety and depression using talking therapies. They are trained to explore what people think, feel and do, especially in stressful situations. They can help you find ways to confront your fears or improve your situation. Usually they are based in the hospital.
     
  • Counselling Psychologist - A counselling psychologist can work in a wide variety of settings to help people with physical, emotional and mental health concerns, improve their sense of well-being, alleviate feelings of distress and resolve crises. They also provide assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of more severe psychological symptoms. Interventions used by counselling psychologists can be brief or more long-term, and are focused on individual differences.
     
  • Psychiatrist – A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who specialises in depression and emotional illness. The psychiatrist may prescribe antidepressants and/or recommend talking therapy.
     
  • Medical social worker – A medical social worker is trained to help you deal with any emotional problems or social needs related to your cancer. They can provide support and counselling to you and your family and also advice on practical and financial supports and services available to you.
     
  • Psychotherapist – A psychotherapist specialises in psychotherapy. This is a therapy which explores emotional issues that result in feelings of anxiety and depression. Psychotherapists assist with problem solving, improve coping skills, and can help you and your family to develop more coping skills.
     

Irish Cancer Society support

Our Cancer Support Department provides a range of cancer support services for people with cancer, at home and in hospital, including:

  • Our Cancer Nurseline Freephone 1800 200 700. Call our Cancer Nurseline and speak to one of our cancer nurses for confidential advice, support and information. The Cancer Nurseline is open Monday to Thursday 9am–7pm and Friday 9am–5pm. You can also email us on cancernurseline@irishcancer.ie; or visit our Online Community.
     
  • Our Daffodil Centres. Visit our Daffodil Centres, located in thirteen hospitals nationwide. The centers are staffed by cancer nurses and trained volunteers who provide confidential advice, support and information to anyone affected by cancer.

     

  • Our Survivor Support. Speak to someone who has been through a cancer diagnosis. Our trained volunteers are available to provide emotional and practical support to anyone going through or finished with their treatment.  

     

  • Support in your area. We work with cancer support groups and centres across the country to ensure cancer patients have access to confidential support including counselling

 

 

Date Last Reviewed: 
Friday, November 27, 2015