When cancer treatment is completed, life can begin to return to normal—though it may be a “new normal” and not exactly like life was before. Many head and neck cancer survivors adapt well and are able to return to work and other activities in time. There may be lingering issues with eating, breathing, speaking or swallowing that your loved one will need to address with ongoing therapy and rehabilitation. There may also be some emotional issues or relationship challenges you find yourselves dealing with for some time after treatment is completed. And, of course, the patient will need to continue going to follow-up visits with his or her doctors and have periodic scans and other tests done to make sure the cancer does not recur.
Do not be surprised if psychological issues such as anxiety and depression persist after treatment is completed, for both you and the patient. Fear of the cancer returning is normal, and it can be quite difficult to cope with this particular kind of anxiety. Some head and neck cancer patients will struggle with confidence and identity issues due to scarring and disfigurement. Others may experience challenges with relationships and intimacy or with new or lingering addictions. These issues will affect you as the caregiver and as a person close to the cancer survivor as well. Such issues usually don’t go away on their own. Watch for signs that it may be time to seek professional help or resume counseling separately or together.
If your loved one has not yet returned to work, encourage him or her to do so. Most people diagnosed with cancer (84 percent) eventually resume employment within a few years after completing treatment.1Hoffman B. Cancer survivors at work: a generation of progress. CA Cancer J Clin. 2005 Sep-Oct;55(5):271-80.
Life after treatment is not all difficulties and challenges. There are many positive aspects you can look forward to. For example, many head and neck cancer survivors and their caregivers report a profound sense of relief and appreciation for life and good health they never had before. Some find their relationships are closer than ever, and their ability to see the good in others is enhanced. Many cancer survivors and their caregivers find ways to help and support those on the cancer journey as well, which they say is one of the best ways to find meaning in their own struggles and survival.
The journey is never over. You grasp life differently. You live it because you never know what life’s going to throw at you.Tony L. (oral cancer survivor)
1 Hoffman B. Cancer survivors at work: a generation of progress. CA Cancer J Clin. 2005 Sep-Oct;55(5):271-80.