A cancer diagnosis can turn your life upside down, challenging you physically, emotionally, and mentally. It takes a lot of strength, resilience, and support to get through cancer treatment. However, reaching the end of your treatment doesn’t mean that you’ve reached the end of your journey. Instead, it marks the beginning of a whole new chapter.
After cancer, finding your “new normal” is often an important part of your recovery process, giving you the chance to rebuild your life, reclaim your identity and embrace a brighter future.
A new normal is the adjustment and change that occur after an event or circumstance that has a significant impact on a person’s life, such as a cancer diagnosis. It refers to various aspects of a person’s life that may have been impacted by the disease and its treatment.
There may be physical adjustments required, such as coping with side effects from treatment or adapting to a new lifestyle to maintain health and well-being. You may also have to adjust emotionally as you learn to cope with anxiety and fear of recurrence. Additionally, the new normal may involve reevaluating priorities, setting new goals, and incorporating self-care and support into your daily life.
In this article, we will explore seven essential steps to help you navigate the new reality after cancer. These steps are designed to support your emotional well-being, physical health, self-care, and personal growth.
1. Rebuild Your Physical Strength
One of the most significant aspects of reclaiming life after cancer is physical recovery. Engaging in regular exercise can help you restore stamina, improve your overall well-being, and reduce the risk of cancer recurrence. Whether it’s gentle walks, yoga, swimming, or strength training, find activities that suit your abilities and interests. Start slowly and listen to your body, gradually increasing your activity levels as you gain strength and endurance. Physical rehabilitation programs or working with a certified fitness professional can also provide guidance and support tailored to your specific needs. Focusing on rebuilding your physical strength will help you regain control over your body and enhance your quality of life moving forward.
2. Acknowledge Your Feelings
Equally important as rebuilding your physical strength is addressing the emotional and psychological aftermath of cancer. While treatment targets cancer specifically in the body, the experience doesn’t leave the mind, spirit, or emotions untouched. The toll it takes has been likened to a natural disaster or trauma. In fact, recent studies have put forward the theory that surviving cancer fits the framework of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
It’s common to go through a rollercoaster range of emotions when active cancer treatment ends, including fear, relief, gratitude, anxiety, and uncertainty about the future. The fear of recurrence can be overwhelming, and adjusting to the changes in your body and appearance can be a challenging process.
It’s important to acknowledge your feelings and give yourself permission to process them. Understand that what you are feeling is a natural response to the trauma you’ve faced. Allow yourself the time and space to grieve any losses, whether they be physical, emotional, or psychological.
Be compassionate to yourself and patient with the pace of recovery. Support from friends, family, and professional counselors can be immensely helpful. It can help you cope with your emotions and express your emotions in a safe environment. Joining support groups with other cancer survivors can also be helpful, as it allows you to connect with individuals who understand your experiences firsthand. These networks can offer emotional support, inspiration, and a sense of belonging that fosters resilience and personal growth.
3. Embrace Self-Care
Make self-care a top priority by engaging in activities that promote relaxation, reduce stress, and support your overall wellness. Carve out time for relaxation and engage in activities that bring you joy and promote a sense of well-being. This may include pursuing hobbies, spending time in nature, connecting with loved ones, or engaging in creative outlets. Activities such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, or journaling can help cultivate a sense of calm, inner peace, and self-reflection. These practices provide valuable moments for healing and self-discovery.
4. Take care of your diet
Your diet plays a crucial role in supporting your overall health. Adding fruits and vegetables to your diet can support your recovery. Vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants in these foods promote healing and boost your immune system. Get a range of nutrients by including a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables. Whole grains, such as whole wheat, oats, quinoa, and brown rice, are good sources of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. They can help maintain energy levels, support digestion, and provide sustained nourishment.
Proteins such as poultry, fish, legumes, and tofu are essential for tissue repair and regeneration. It is important to include adequate protein in your diet in order to help heal wounds, recover muscles, and maintain strength. Healthy fats, like those found in avocados, nuts, seeds, and olive oil, are important for brain health and nutrient absorption. Including these fats in moderation can contribute to a well-rounded and balanced diet.
Consulting with healthcare professionals or nutritionists who specialize in cancer survivorship can provide valuable guidance on tailoring your diet to meet your specific needs. They can take into account any dietary restrictions or sensitivities you may have and create a personalized nutrition plan that supports your recovery and long-term health goals.
5. Redefine Identity and Self-Image
Cancer can profoundly affect your identity and self-image. You may find yourself grappling with changes in your physical appearance, altered body functions, or a sense of loss. Finding ways to redefine your identity in a way that feels authentic and empowering is important as you navigate these changes.
You are not solely defined by your cancer experience. Explore the aspects of yourself beyond your diagnosis. Recognize and develop your unique strengths, talents, and interests. Engaging in activities that foster self-expression is an effective way to reconnect with yourself and discover what you’re passionate about. Writing, painting, photography, and participating in support programs can help you tap into your creativity and rediscover yourself beyond cancer.
6. Reassess Priorities and Life Goals
Beyond physical and emotional recovery, you may also find yourself questioning your priorities and reassessing your life goals. Cancer often acts as a wake-up call, prompting us to live more intentionally and authentically. Take the time to reflect on your personal aspirations, dreams, and ambitions. Consider what truly matters to you and how you want to shape your future. This may involve exploring a new career path, nurturing relationships and connections with loved ones, or engaging in activities that bring you joy. Embrace this opportunity for personal growth and create a future filled with purpose and fulfillment.
7. Celebrating Your Milestones
As you navigate your journey toward the new normal, it’s important to honor every milestone, no matter how small it may seem. Every step forward is a victory worth celebrating. Take the time to acknowledge and celebrate the end of treatments, anniversaries of being cancer-free, or personal achievements that you accomplish along the way. Each of these milestones serves as a reminder of your strength, resilience, and progress. Make sure to surround yourself with loved ones who can share in your celebrations and provide support.
The process of finding your new normal after cancer requires patience, self-compassion, and time. Healing is a journey that will have its ups and downs. Throughout your journey, remember to be kind to yourself and prioritize self-care in all its forms. Nurture your emotional well-being, tend to your physical health, and honor your individuality. Trust in your ability to adapt and grow.
May your journey be filled with healing, self-discovery, and a renewed sense of hope and purpose.
A Stanford Medicine X e-Patient scholar, Marie Ennis O’Connor is an internationally recognized keynote speaker, writer, and consultant on global trends in patient engagement, digital health and participatory medicine. Marie’s work is informed by her passion for embedding the patient voice at the heart of healthcare values. She writes about the experience of transitioning from breast cancer patient to advocate on her award-winning blog Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer.