Coping With Emotions

Telling People You’re Cancer Free Brings a Swell of Emotions

Raise a glass to your loved ones and thank them for their support, but let them know that you still need their support after cancer treatment is complete.

Going through a diagnosis and treatment for cancer is an understandably emotional time, but people are often surprised that being “cancer free” is also trying. To complicate matters, the people around you, who likely responded to your diagnosis with compassion, patience and support, may approach your new cancer-free status with an expectation that you snap back to normal. They may not understand that you have to accommodate to a new reality, again.

The New Normal

When your regimen changes from actively treating cancer to waiting to see if it returns, that often triggers a change in thought processes and emotions. Once the treatment process is completed, your interaction with medical staff is reduced and your support crew evaporates. You now have the bandwidth to ponder your cancer experience. All those thoughts you pushed aside while you focused on treatment didn’t go away; they waited until you had time to deal with them. The National Cancer Institute explains that this is a common time for people to reevaluate every aspect of their life, including spiritual beliefs and world view, employment, relationships, attitude, self-image and how they take care of their body.

So how do you get your friends to understand all this when you’re not sure how you feel about it yourself? Yes, treatment is done, but you might not always feel like celebrating or like your old self.

Communication Is Vital to Relationships

Finding a way to explain this situation to your friends is frustrating, especially when you explain the same thing over and over to many people. One way to deal with this situation is to use a blog or CaringBridge page to share updates with your friends. Writing your story, and sharing some information about how your life has changed, can help people better understand, and it eases the burden of you having to constantly explain things. It’s also a great place to ask for help if you still need the support you had during treatment, such as meals, rides or a babysitter. If you’re the type that likes to give speeches, an announcement during a gathering of your friends is also appropriate. This is a chance to raise your glass to thank your friends for their support, but then let them know you still need it.

You also want to plan out the language you’ll use when describing your situation. You determine the narrative here. If “cancer free” doesn’t seem right to you, tell your friends that. In your speech or social post, feel free to include trigger words or phrasing that you don’t want to use or to educate more people about cancer and your remission in general.

Seek Out Others Who Have Been There

Some people find the peer support from other cancer survivors is more beneficial in the years following treatment than it was during treatment. Poll your support group to see how they told their loved ones and acquaintances. What challenges came up? How did they stop the tears, if you’d like to remain composed? They’ll also have good ideas on how to address specific cancer-related communication challenges you may have with loved ones. You may also find it helps to volunteer some time or to share your story with others, if you find your emotions too overwhelming when telling people your news. You can also start seeing a therapist, if you weren’t already. (The American Society of Clinical Oncology has tips for finding the right one for you.)

You overcame a lot to get to call yourself cancer free, and you’re still overcoming. Cancer leaves its mark, but you get to decide what that mark means.

UVA Cancer Center provides a wide array of support services, including social workers and inter-faith chaplains who can help your talk through these difficult issues.

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Judy Schwartz Haley
Judy Schwartz Haley