After The Credits Roll

Emotional Care - June 30, 2014

Recently a friend of mine completed an incredibly difficult treatment plan. This course of treatment involved a full year of intensive drug therapy with brutal side effects. As the months of treatment dragged on her friends and family rallied around her to offer support and encouragement. Week by week as it wore on she focused on the day when she would have the last and final injection of the medication. When that day arrived she was flooded with messages of congratulations and hugs and high fives. Finally it was over! Weeks later when she got the news that the treatment was successful there was even more rejoicing. If a movie had been made of this story the frame would freeze on her smiling face and the credits would roll.

Unfortunately life is not like a movie when we deal with major medical issues; most of the time the story doesn't end when the treatment does. My friend struggled with the period of transition after treatment was over. Returning to work, slowly attending some social events, and readjusting to a "new normal life" was not easy for her. There were complex emotions surrounding her transition back and it was compounded by the fact that some people did not understand her frustration. People expect you to struggle with treatment but find struggling without it hard to comprehend.

My friend's story is somewhat common. Cancer survivors often experience a difficult transition to life after treatment ends. It's great to no longer have chemo or radiation but life rarely goes "back to normal". Survivors often struggle with ongoing side effects as well as anxiety over the cancer coming back. People who are recovering from injury or surgery can also experience a difficult time when they have partially recovered but are still not 100%. It is common for friends, family, and co-workers to forget that someone who had an injury or surgery months earlier may still struggle with everyday tasks because the patient is no longer confined to bed or using crutches. Many people tend to "look much better on the outside" after a major medical issue when they are still healing on the inside.

If you find yourself struggling with this phase in your recovery, the first and most important step is to accept that it is difficult. Frankly, patients are often their own worst enemy when facing this challenge. We tend to be upset with ourselves that life is still difficult after the "hard part" is over. Humans have an uncanny ability to set unrealistic expectations for themselves. So coming to terms with your own feelings about it must happen first. Find a way that works for you to process your feelings of disappointment, embarrassment, and frustration. You may find journaling, talking with friends, going for a walk, or attending a support group to be useful tools. Whatever you do, it's important that you find a way to cope that works for you.

It's also necessary to honestly communicate your struggles with the people in your life. For example, if you are dealing with fatigue after your return to work it is important to let your boss and coworkers know and request accommodation to support you. If you need rest breaks, a different work schedule, or shifting of work duties to help in your healing through the transition it is important to ask. Remember, your employer has an interest in your successful return to work so asking for an accommodation that will help you work better in the long run is in everyone's best interest. If your friends invite you to social events and you aren't up for it yet, you have to tell them you aren't ready to return to your regular social calendar yet. Your friends will understand your limits if you explain it to them and if for some reason they don't then sadly they aren't very good friends.

Recovery is not a linear process, and each individual and situation is different. Some patients have a relatively easy transition back to work and into social life after a major medical issue while others find it very difficult. The only thing you can do is focus on being honest with yourself and others as you figure it out.