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Becoming a “cancer survivor”

There’s a lot of discussion about reaching the ultimate goal of a cancer journey—being cancer-free. But there’s not as much information about what life is like when you get there. We’re different after cancer, and that can sometimes be as hard to face as treatment itself. Here are some tips to help transition back to life after cancer.

If you identify as a survivor, take this self-assessment to help you identify and respond to some common challenges you may be facing.

What does it mean to be a survivor?

It depends. This answer may be unsatisfying, but it’s true. Being a cancer survivor will mean different things for different people, because every cancer experience is unique.

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Real people explain what makes them feel like a survivor

Survivor voices

Many cancer survivors find new purpose in life after treatment.

Jim S. used what he learned from his cancer journey to advocate for other patients on Capitol Hill.

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“God chose you, so that you would have a testimony to help someone else.”

Jim S. used what he learned from his cancer journey to advocate for other patients on Capitol Hill.

“God chose you, so that you would have a testimony to help someone else.”
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In this letter to herself, Kristi discusses the challenges of her cancer journey and how she channeled them into her current work as a patient ambassador.

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“Sure, you’ll have a few scars, but you’ll both come through victorious and with a new sense of purpose: to become a patient ambassador.”

In this letter to herself, Kristi discusses the challenges of her cancer journey and how she channeled them into her current work as a patient ambassador.

“Sure, you’ll have a few scars, but you’ll both come through victorious and with a new sense of purpose: to become a patient ambassador.”
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Life as a survivor

To state the obvious—it can be hard to go back to “normal” after cancer

From the minute you are diagnosed with cancer, the end goal—the dream—is to put it behind you. But sometimes, when you reach that part of the cancer journey, the reality is different than what you expected. These are some common challenges that cancer survivors face and tips for how to deal with them.

If you identify as a survivor, this self-assessment may help you pinpoint and deal with some of the challenges you’re facing.

You can print it out to use yourself or share it with a loved one.

Download self-assessment

For all the relief that comes with completing treatment, many people also feel anxious, scared, and even guilty after being declared cancer-free.

You do not have to suffer in silence. You are not alone. Here are some steps you can take:

Find a virtual support group: There are all kinds of support groups for cancer survivors. Some are formal, while others are more casual and social. You can find groups for only survivors or caregivers, or even some that include spouses, family members, or friends. Our partners may be able to help.

Therapy: If you are interested in a one-on-one talk, a counselor can be very helpful. Your doctor or healthcare team should be able to recommend professionals who work specifically with cancer survivors.

Spirituality: To feel more connected and present, spiritual practices can help. Daily meditation, practicing gratitude, helping others, and spending time in nature are just a few ways.

Your relationships may change after cancer. Maybe you’re not getting the reaction that you want from someone, or the connection you felt during your treatment suddenly isn’t there. Or, maybe you’re getting too much attention, and you would prefer a little space. To improve communication in your relationships, you can:

  • Be honest with your loved ones about how you’re feeling, even if it’s tough to express yourself
  • Let others know what to expect from you
  • Enjoy and keep friendships that matter-reassess those that are not bringing you the support you need
  • Plan what to say to people in advance
  • Let people know when you are ready to be social again
  • Find a virtual support group—there are many to choose from
  • Get professional help—there are resources from oncology social workers to psychologists that are trained specifically to work with cancer patients, caregivers, survivors, and co-survivors.

Before you return to work, ask your healthcare team if they think you’re ready physically, emotionally, and mentally. According to the American Cancer Society, it may help to reach out to your HR department or supervisor to discuss the transition back to work ahead of time to feel more prepared and give you a sense of what to expect.

If you talk to your HR department or supervisor, here are helpful topics to discuss:

  • Starting with just part-time work hours
  • Having flex time to take care of your health
  • Sharing job responsibilities until you’re ready for full-time work

You will have to decide how and when you want to talk with your coworkers about your work needs. Be sure to plan ahead how much you want to say or how you want to tell them about your experience with cancer.

Help others by sharing what’s helping you

More help from our partners
More help from our partners
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Emotional support for everyday needs.

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Resources and support for cancer survivors.

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Inspiring survivor stories and videos.

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Valuable resources and information for survivors.

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Inspirational stories from lung cancer survivors.

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Resources, tips, and survivor stories.

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Unique issues and concerns for breast cancer survivors.

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