Finding Emotional Support After Treatment Ends
Many people expect that immediately after breast cancer treatment ends, they’ll feel a weight lift off their shoulders. Family members and friends often think this way too. They may want to celebrate with you — and then move on.
In reality, post-treatment life can often leave people feeling like they’re drifting down a river alone, without a life raft.
“Very often, people will say that they felt safer when they were in treatment. They felt protected. They felt like they had guardians,” says Page Tolbert, LCSW, a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City. “They feel unsafe [once treatment ends]. That surprises a lot of people who even themselves thought that they would be really excited.”
Talk to Loved Ones
It can be hard to cope with family and friends believing you will return to life as it was before cancer when you don’t feel that way yourself. Their actions and words may make you uncomfortable. You might feel they don’t understand what you’re going through, have stopped supporting you, or that they’ve become hard to talk to about your experience.
Your family and friends’ expectations come from a place of love, and of wanting to see you happy and healthy, says Ms. Tolbert, who worked at the post-treatment resource program of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, in New York City, for 17 years, where she provided group and individual counseling to people with cancer and their families. They’re not ignoring you or purposely trying to rush you through your emotional recovery.
“You may need to say to them, ‘I really hear how happy you are for me. I really hear that you’re in my corner ... but I also want to tell you where I’m at,’” she says.
But before you can get family and friends to accept that where you are emotionally may not be where they would like you to be, you also have to accept that you may not be where you would like to be either, Ms. Tolbert says.
Accepting feelings like fear, sadness, anxiety, anger and disappointment as part of life after treatment can help you have honest conversations with your loved ones about what you’re going through and what you need.
Create a New Circle of Support
“When my treatment ended in October 2013, I was under the impression that my life would just go back to being normal,” says Yvonne McLean Florence, 53, from Lansdowne, Pennsylvania. And her family seemed to assume that, too. Instead, by the end of the year, Yvonne felt deeply depressed. The possibility of the cancer coming back was a dark cloud hanging over her head. She struggled to reach out and felt she wasn’t getting the support she needed from her loved ones.
“I just felt like they couldn’t really identify with what I was going through. It was like hitting a brick wall and it was frustrating,” she says.
You may find that the people closest to you, or those you relied on during treatment, aren’t the best people to turn to for emotional support after treatment ends. But there are other people who can help you transition from life in treatment to life beyond treatment.
Support Groups and Professionals
After searching for resources on the Internet, Yvonne found a 3-day retreat in Missouri for women who had finished breast cancer treatment. She went, and found a place where she could express her feelings, surrounded by people who understood. She used that experience as a stepping stone to find more support groups and to break free of depression.
“Since I started sitting with other women who were going through the same kind of emotional trauma, I feel like I’m making progress without being held hostage by always thinking about recurrence and isolating myself,” Yvonne says. “I really [had to] open myself up to get the support that I needed.”
Marilyn Van Houten, 68, from Miami, was diagnosed with breast cancer about a decade ago. She joined support groups, and in one group, called Your Bosom Buddies, she eventually took on the role of matching newly diagnosed people with other members who had the same breast cancer subtype or treatment. As a board member, she also helps to train new mentors.
Marilyn found value in meeting with healthcare professionals trained in helping people with cancer work through difficult emotions. Shortly after she was diagnosed, she was assigned a psychologist, who she saw regularly for about a year-and-a- half. She also met with oncology specialists at the Cancer Support Community, where she was able to talk about her emotional needs, learn about support services and take educational classes.
Find a Passion
About 3 years ago, Marilyn found a different kind of support. She calls it “one of the best things that I have done over these 10 years.”
Marilyn is a member of the Heroines Choir, a group of women who have had breast cancer or who want to support loved ones who have had breast cancer, and who love to sing.
The amateur choir, formed in 2012, is made up of a core group of about 15 people. Marilyn says the group allows her to do something she enjoys while bonding with people who understand what she’s been through.
Being asked to perform and receiving good feedback on those performances is an emotionally strengthening experience for the choir’s members, says Marilyn.
“I think it’s just something to look forward to … forgetting about breast cancer for these periods that we practice and just moving forward with life and leaving some of the bad memories of breast cancer behind us,” she says.
Longing for the way life was before breast cancer is very common. It’s something Ms. Tolbert hears in her office all the time. And some people do feel they can get back to being who they were and living the life they lived before their diagnosis.
But much more common is the effort to find a life that is happy and fulfilling, but one that has also been changed forever by breast cancer.
“If I was constantly trying to become the woman that I was before the breast cancer diagnosis, then for me that would just be a false hope,” Yvonne says.
People who embrace finding a new normal for themselves have a head start on those who don’t, Ms. Tolbert says. But before you find that new normal, allow yourself to grieve.
It’s not just grieving over physical changes or lost opportunities. About a year after treatment ends, some people start to miss the sense of awe and appreciation for life that they felt soon after treatment ended.
“More often than not, I’ve found that women feel they’ve gained something from the experience of breast cancer — whether it’s a new perspective on life, or a new confidence to be themselves or to be more outspoken,” Ms. Tolbert says. “But even for those who truly don’t feel they gained something valuable, those who may feel that treatment just robbed them of time, giving nothing back, the intensity of the experience does eventually lessen. Cancer becomes a PART of life, instead of all of it. The important thing is to give yourself the time you need to digest the experience — and to let others know that you need that time.”