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I Survived Cancer. Now What?

After treatment, the emotional healing begins.

Photo credit: Getty Images/praetorianphoto

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Q: I am a breast cancer survivor—one of the lucky ones whose cancer was found early. After a double mastectomy and a few rounds of chemotherapy, my cancer is in remission. I have had friends walk in my honor, band together to coordinate meals for my family, and offer to help with whatever I need.

I know that I’m lucky to have such a wonderful support system, especially as I was going through treatment. So why do I feel so lonely and sad? Why am I having so much trouble getting over it?


"Sad Survivor"

Dear Sad Survivor:

You certainly have been through a lot. Even though your prognosis is good, you have experienced a terrible loss—your sense of security. You now know the world is unpredictable and that terrible things can happen to you, which makes you vulnerable in ways that you probably never experienced before. Getting diagnosed with cancer and undergoing treatment is traumatic. And it takes time to overcome a trauma. 

I know it’s not easy, but try to think of your experience less as something you need to “get over” and more as something you need to get through. The best way to do that is to give yourself permission to experience whatever feelings come up, even when they don’t make sense or feel good. Your feelings will change over time and present differently during different phases of your life. Eventually your experience will feel more like a badge of honor and you will be able to draw strength from it.

Now that you’re back to your normal routine, the daily phone calls and dropped-off meals from friends and neighbors have become less frequent, which is likely contributing to your loneliness. You can cook for your own family now, so the prepared meals have stopped coming, and you are expected to take your turn with the dance class carpool like everyone else. No one looks for the kind of attention that accompanies a cancer diagnosis, but that doesn’t change the fact that there is a sense of loss when that support disappears. It’s wonderful to feel loved and cared for. And it’s human nature to miss something that feels good, regardless of where it came from or why it came in the first place.

When you look healthy on the outside, the world assumes you are feeling good on the inside, too. But the fact is that the two don’t go hand in hand. In time, you will learn to interact with the world from your new reality.

In the meantime, I highly recommend finding a support group for cancer survivors in your area. It is so important now to connect with others who know firsthand how you feel. It will help normalize your “abnormal” experience until you learn to incorporate it into your daily life. Many people find power and solace in these connections. And please remember to be patient with yourself. Time will change your perspective and hopefully guide you to a place of peace and acceptance.

“No one looks for the kind of attention that accompanies a cancer diagnosis, but that doesn’t change the fact that there is a sense of loss when that support disappears.”
Amy Kirschenblatt, LMSW
Amy Kirschenblatt, Licensed Social Worker

Next Steps and Useful Resources

  • Looking for a support group in your area? Click here.

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Published December 7th, 2017

Find a Cancer Support Group