Inevitably, a mixture of relief and anxiety accompanies the end of cancer treatment, and these mixed emotions can resurface each time your doctor increases the time between appointments.
I thought about this recently when I was at a checkup last week. My doctor informed me that could come back in two months — as opposed to the usual four to six weeks.
This lengthening of the leash is a good thing, as it shows that my healthcare providers have confidence in my continued good health. It’s also nice break from being on the road; the trip to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston can take up to two hours from my home in Western Massachusetts. Every time I have an appointment, the process eats up an entire day and sometimes it’s so exhausting that I struggle to stay awake on the drive home. I’ve even had to pull over for a short catnap.
So the longer interval will be good for my sense that I am a normal person, not a patient.
Yet it also comes with a feeling of separation anxiety. It’s comforting to touch base with your doctors. And it’s reassuring to think, “I just had a checkup, and I know that I’m fine.”
Looking back at the end of my treatment for acute myeloid leukemia five years ago, I remember being relieved that it was over but also frightened by losing touch with my medical team.
And during treatment I had a job … getting better. When it was over, I felt at a loss.
The solution is to refocus the nature of your job — which means regaining strength and maintaining emotional and physical well-being.
When I got out of the hospital after three months due to complications from my bone marrow transplant, I moved in with my sister, who lives close to Dana-Farber. Twice a week, she took me in to get transfusions of blood and platelets.
Gradually, the time between my appointments was lengthened: first to one week, then every two weeks, and so on. After about a month I returned home, still too weak to drive, so friends or family members brought me to Boston.
Survivors without complications wouldn’t have to go as often, but would still likely experience the same mix of emotions after treatment ends and when time between visits is extended.
Wendy Harpham, an internist and survivor of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, writes in her book, After Cancer: A Guide to Your New Life, that what you feel is less important than what you do with these feelings. For starters, she suggests sharing your emotions with someone you trust.
In the case of anxiety-provoking factors over which you have no control, Harpham recommends:
· Training yourself not to worry about things that may not happen
· Exposing concerns that are unrealistic, so that they are no longer concerns
· Being hopeful that future problems can be treated when they arise
· Recognizing that anxiety is only hurting you
· Learning self-relaxation techniques
· Getting adequate sleep
· Getting exercise, when possible
· Joining a support group
· Seeking the advice and assistance of a professional counselor
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