Survivor's Guide
Living Well after Cancer

About Living Well after Cancer

Cancer Council Victoria has developed information for people who've finished active treatment for cancer, such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy. They're about the emotional, physical, practical and social challenges that you may face now treatment is over. These challenges will vary depending on the type of cancer you were diagnosed with and the treatment you received.

If you're still having treatment or your doctor's said your cancer has advanced (can't be cured), see our advanced cancer section.

Many people diagnosed with cancer now live a long time after treatment. The end of treatment may be a time when you realise the impact cancer had on you, your family and friends. 
We hope these pages will give you the information you need to live well after cancer. If you'd like to talk to someone call NCSM’s Cancer Helpline at 1800-08-1000 for information and support. 

Back to normal
‘Cancer survivor’ means different things to different people. For some, a cancer survivor is anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer. Others use the term to refer to people who are alive many years after their cancer treatment.

The transition from patient to survivor is different for everyone. Some see themselves as a survivor from when they become free from signs of cancer. Others see themselves as a survivor when active treatment stops. Either way, you may wonder: what now?

For many people, ‘survivor’ is a strong and positive term. However, others feel it implies that they will struggle to cope with cancer in the future. Some people do not like being labelled at all and may prefer to put their cancer experience in the past. You may find it difficult to relate to the title of survivor because you believe your treatment was relatively simple. Instead, you may refer to yourself as someone who has had cancer or is living with cancer.

In this section we use the term ‘survivor’ to mean anyone who has finished their active cancer treatment. No matter how you feel about the word ‘survivor’, or the words you choose to use, we hope this section will be helpful.

Improved methods of cancer detection and treatment have led to an increase in the numbers of people surviving and living with cancer for longer periods of time. 

Cancer is often described as a journey that starts at diagnosis. During treatment, some people feel that their life is on hold. After treatment ends, it may be hard to know how to resume normal activities. This can be described as being in limbo.

Survivors may expect life to return to what it was like before the cancer diagnosis. For many people, though, it isn't that simple. The reality is often more emotionally and physically complex. Some cancer survivors find they can't or don't want to go back to how life was before their treatment.
Many survivors say that cancer changes them. After treatment, they may feel different, even though they look the same. With time, survivors often find a new way of living. Many call this a ‘new normal'. It may take months or years to find a ‘new normal'.
After treatment ends people often feel: 
  • I should be celebrating.
  • I should feel well.
  • I should be the person I was before cancer.
  • I should not need support.
  • I should feel grateful.
People often think 'I was looking forward to the treatment ending so why do I have mixed feelings now?'

It's common for people to feel both excited and anxious when treatment ends. Many say they need time to stop and reflect on what's happened before they can think about the future. This process may mean they re-evaluate and change their values, goals, priorities and outlook on life.
  • Many survivors feel a sense of loss for 'the person I once was', 'the way things used to be', and 'the things I used to do'.
  • Some feel they should be happy and full of wisdom because they survived, but instead feel guilty that this isn't the case.
  • Some people feel as though they have fought a battle and need time to rest. Others want to return immediately to their previous life.
How you feel and cope will depend on the type of cancer and cancer treatment you had, and what you're like as a person. Any long-term side effects from your treatment will also play a big part. Many cancer survivors have on going health concerns because of the cancer or due to treatment. These may include fatigue, difficulty sleeping, pain and depression. The after-effects of treatment can make everyday life difficult.

Find out about the NCSM affiliated cancer support groups– Pink Unity and Prostate Cancer Support Group. The groups provide service that connects people who've had cancer with volunteers who've had cancer as well.
Your family and friends may think your cancer experience is over, when you don't. Your family and friends care for you and it's natural for them to want the distress of cancer to be behind you. They may not fully understand what you've been through, and might not realise that the cancer experience doesn't necessarily stop when treatment ends.

It may be helpful to allow yourself time to adjust to these changes, and to explain to your friends and family that you need their support during this period. 
Many people find there are positive aspects to having cancer. Some even refer to the disease as a life-changing experience. Cancer may cause you to re-examine your life choices, and may motivate you to travel, take up new activities or make lifestyle changes (e.g. starting exercise or quitting smoking). This shift is often gradual, as even positive change can take getting used to.

After treatment, some people want to help improve the cancer experience for others through advocacy or volunteer work. If this interests you, call NCSM’s Resource and Wellness Centre at 03-2698 7300.
Some people are happy with the way things were before the cancer diagnosis. This is okay; you don't have to feel pressured to make life changes if you don't want to.

  • Assess your life. You may want to ask yourself: Am I doing what fulfils me? Am I doing what I've always wanted to do? What is important to me?
  • Focus on each day and expect both good and bad days.
  • Do things at your own pace. Avoid pressure to make decisions or start new activities straight away. Plan rest time between activities.
  • If you feel apprehensive about going out for the first time, ask someone you love and trust to come along.
  • Be prepared for mixed reactions from family and friends. If people don't know how to react, try not to get upset. Some people avoid contact because cancer brings up difficult emotions. They are dealing with it in their own way.
  • Share your feelings and worries with family and friends.
  • Talk to your doctor if you are concerned about sadness or low moods.
  • Practise some form of relaxation, such as meditation, visualisation, yoga or deep breathing.
  • Keep a journal. Many people find it helps to write down how they're feeling.
  • Join a support group. Speaking with other cancer survivors may help you cope and make you feel more optimistic about the future.
  • Attend a survivorship program, if there's one in your area. Call our NCSM’s Resource and Wellness Centre at 03-26987300 to ask what's available.
  • Take part in a survivors' event. Call NCSM’s Resource and Wellness Centre to discuss options, or visit NCSM’s Relay For Life page.
Information reviewed by: 
Dr Kate Webber, Cancer Survivorship Research Fellow and Medical Oncologist, NSW Cancer Survivors Centre; Kathy Chapman, Director, Health Strategies, Cancer Council NSW; Janine Deevy, Adolescent and Young Adult Cancer Care Coordinator, Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital, QLD; Dr Louisa Gianacas, Clinical Psychologist, Psycho-oncology Service, Calvary Mater Newcastle, NSW; Tina Gibson, Education and Support Officer, Cancer Council SA; A/Prof Michael Jefford, Senior Clinical Consultant at Cancer Council VIC, Consultant Medical Oncologist, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and Clinical Director, Australian Cancer Survivorship Centre, VIC; Annie Miller, Project Coordinator, Community Education Programs, Cancer Council NSW; Micah Peters, Project Officer, Education and Information, Cancer Council SA; Janine Porter-Steele, Clinical Nurse Manager, Kim Walters Choices, The Wesley Hospital, QLD; Ann Tocker, Cancer Voices; and A/Prof Jane Turner, Department of Psychiatry, University of Queensland.