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  • Debbie Kerr

Life after cancer treatments

keyboard with question above it asking  "What is normal?"

Once your cancer treatments have ended, the people around you might expect that everything will go back to normal; in fact, you might expect everything to return to normal. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. And, perhaps surprisingly, this can apply to not only the patient, but to friends and family.

Instead of everything returning to normal life, whatever that truly is, some people talk about a new normal.

Based on my experiences, there is nothing normal about the new normal.  Please judge for yourself.

Do these questions seem normal after cancer treatments end?

While some of these questions are specific to breast cancer (you’ll know them when you see them), others apply to all cancers and potentially family and friends.


Is this sticky stuff deodorant or is my prosthetic breast leaking?

While there is a saying that curiosity killed the cat, I was glad that I was curious about what the sticky substance was on my left arm. If I had not had previous experience with a leaking prothesis (two-time offender now), I wouldn’t have known to ask myself the second part of my question. And the answer was that my prosthetic breast, after many, many years, had finally worn out at the seam and was leaking.  

Life lesson: When in doubt, check it out…except if you are watching a horror movie. You know it is never a good idea to check it out.  

Is there time to run upstairs to put on my prosthetic breast or should I just cross my arms and hope for the best?

Normally, I walk around the house without wearing my prosthetic breast. While, in most cases, this is not a problem, occasionally there is a surprise visitor. Sometimes it is just someone who is trying to sell something and sometimes it is someone I know. How I react depends on three factors: how much time is there until the person reaches my front door, who it is, and how long they are likely to stay.

For people I would invite into my house, I would cross my arms and then make an excuse to go upstairs and rectify the situation. For people I know really well (like family), I would say “screw it” and just continue talking without my prothesis and without crossing my arms. For salespeople, I cross my arms, although, if I made it abundantly clear that I only have one real breast, they might leave sooner rather than later.

Life lesson: Be prepared or don’t worry about what other people think. Do what makes you feel comfortable both physically and emotionally.  

Is this just a bad headache or has my cancer spread to my brain?

Sometimes the simplest symptoms can cause the highest anxiety levels. For example, when I have a headache for a substantial amount of time, although the thought is fleeting, I wonder if my cancer has spread to my brain.

Life lesson: Find the balance between being vigilant about your health and using up valuable time worrying about something that might never happen.

Why don’t I know why I’m anxious?

Even years after my cancer treatments ended, I sometimes feel panic for no apparent reason. I tell myself, “This is nuts.” Eventually, I take the time to figure out what is wrong.

For example, while I was waiting for my husband to come out of recovery after day surgery, I sat in green recliner with curtains pulled around for privacy. I suddenly started to feel anxious to the point where I felt close to tears. The more I tried to calm myself, the more anxious I became. Eventually I realized that it was the setting that was the problem. I realized there were elements of the current setting that were the same as when I went for chemo treatments. I sat in a hospital-like setting for my chemo treatments and sat in a green recliner.

My anxiety was a symptom of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). I was never warned that this could happen. The strength of my reaction shocked me.

Life lesson: Be kind to yourself. Don’t tell yourself that your anxiety or tears are stupid. There are no wrong emotions. Recognize them and work through them.


Will I be around when <insert name of event> happens?

I am surprised at how many times I ask myself if I will die before certain things happen. Will I be around to see my children get married? Will I experience the joy of having a grandchild? Will I be able to retire and travel? Before my cancer diagnosis, it never occurred to me that I might not be around. I just assumed I would be there for the “normal” life events.

Life lesson: Don’t take anything in life for granted. Accept the things you cannot change. There are no guarantees in life.

Will this so-called routine test find a problem?

Before my cancer diagnosis, it never occurred to me that my test results would be abnormal.  Now when I have tests, I feel anxious and breathe a sigh of relief when I am told that everything looks good. This feeling of anxiety is a new normal; in fact, those in the cancer world use the term scanxiety.

Life lesson: Try to believe that everything will be alright until proven otherwise instead of believing that everything is not okay until proven otherwise.  I know. It’s easier said than done.

What about family and friends?

A cancer diagnosis doesn’t just affect you, as a patient. The people who love you might also be asking themselves some of the same questions that you ask yourself (aside from the prothesis-related ones).

Some examples

While I know it is not all about me, I am using my name in my examples.

  • Will Debbie be around for all the events I want to share with her?

  • Will Debbie’s cancer return?

  • Will this scan show that something is wrong?

  • Debbie’s had a headache for a long time, she doesn’t seem concerned, but what if it means her cancer has spread?

  • If Debbie seems anxious, is there something she’s not telling me?  

What options are there for dealing with this new normal?

These are possible actions you can take, but decide what is right for you and your family.

  • Talk about your thoughts and feelings with your family or friends. Be honest. Take the opportunity to ask them how they are doing and how the new normal is affecting them.

  • Join a support group (in person or online). There might be groups of people where you live who have gone through the same experience as you and could share their experiences or just listen to you. There could be forums (for example, and Facebook groups where you can read about other people’s experiences or pose your own questions when you feel comfortable.

  • Talk to your doctor about how you feel and possibly how it is affecting you physically to see if there are medications or other professional help available to you like a counsellor.

  • Keep a journal as an outlet for those feelings that you might not to share with anyone else. Don’t keep your emotions bottled up. They will surface when you least expect it.

  • Exercise. The mind and body are tightly connected. Physical activity helps to release some of the tension you might not realize you are experiencing.

  • Laugh. If laughter truly is the best medicine, sometimes you can put a new spin on what you are experiencing and look for the humour in it.   

Keep in mind that even without a cancer diagnosis, everyone’s definition of normal changes over time. Unfortunately, cancer speeds up the process. Find a way to embrace the life you have...normal or otherwise.


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Jun 20
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Great article as usual Deb. I love the life lessons, especially the ones that offer outlets to talk about your emotions. Using a journal, talking to family, friends, and medical folks, and joining a laughter group or just laughing yourself are excellent ways to manage your health.

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