This article is adapted by Dr Jane Clark from an article originally written by Jane and Dr Peter Harvey. See our introduction for a background on this series of articles.
It is important to emphasise that recovery is a process, not an event. It’s not something that just happens – it takes place a bit at a time – and often takes much longer than you expected and almost always takes much longer than you had hoped.
Once your treatment has finished there is often a sense of pressure to be as you were before all this happened. One of the key messages of this series of articles is to point out that this cannot happen immediately – and, as we shall see – may not happen in the way that you might have expected.
Before you can begin the main part of your recovery you need to ensure that your energy and strength (both physical and emotional) are in place for the tasks ahead. For this you need to do two things – recuperate and convalesce.
It is a widely held belief, often correct, that the treatment of an illness is meant to make you feel better.
One of the many paradoxes of cancer is that, more often than not, the treatment makes you feel worse. This is not surprising – you are cut and possibly mutilated, injected with poisonous and powerful chemicals, subject to dangerous rays, all in the name of treatment.
The aggressiveness and power of the treatments are a necessary response to the power of the disease, but this very power takes its toll in other ways.
“I found going through treatment very tiring. It wasn’t just the side effects of the treatments themselves, but the back and forth to hospital appointments and the emotional energy I used up which drained me.”Emma Herring, Ticking Off Breast Cancer
These interventions place enormous physical strains on the body. There is often little time to recover from one treatment before the next one starts.
The treatments themselves may make it difficult for you to sleep and eat properly – two critical parts of the body’s defence and recovery system. Some of the treatments drain your energy and resources to such an extent that it’s as much as you can do to put on the kettle. Add to this the emotional turmoil – dealing with the impact and implications of the diagnosis, the uncertainty, the upheaval, the additional burden that you feel that you are imposing on family and friends, and the loss of so many aspects of your routine.
Emotional stress can be as energy consuming as any physical activity. You also need to remember that your time in hospital may have been quite short – these stays have been reduced over the years as anaesthetics and procedures have improved – but this does not mean that the operation you have experienced was minor or that your recovery should mirror the brevity of the hospital stay.
Surgical procedures may have shortened, but our bodies haven’t yet caught up! They still need time to recover. After all that, is it any wonder that you feel wrung out and exhausted, without resources or reserves?
For quite understandable reasons people want to get back to doing the things they used to before the diagnosis but find themselves falling at the first hurdle because they simply find the whole thing too much.
However smoothly your treatment has progressed and however well you have tolerated the various indignities to which you are subjected, sometime simply to recharge and recover – to recuperate – is absolutely essential. This is the necessary foundation on which to build recovery. There is no one right way or length of time to do this. It may be a few days or a few weeks – how long will depend on your state of health before your diagnosis, your age, the intensity, frequency and length of your treatment and so on.
Recuperating is the very first step in a process of rebuilding. Take however long you feel you need. And, most importantly, give yourself permission to take this time. It might be helpful to show this article to your family, so that they also understand that you need to invest in your recuperation.
This is a rather old-fashioned term, and in some ways it’s a shame that it has fallen into disuse, despite its association with bath chairs, rugs, bracing sea air and strengthening broth.
The word has a Latin root meaning ‘to grow strong’ – rather apt under the circumstances. How is this different from recuperation?
In some ways they are very similar, but the distinction is based on time. Recuperation is the immediate period following the end of treatment when you can begin to replenish you reserves of energy.
Once you have recharged your batteries, then you can begin to build up your physical and emotional strength – the process of convalescence. It can be helpful to plan a timetable of what will help you to ‘grow strong’ again. Think about what will help to rebuild your physical strength (walks, swimming, gardening, mindful movement such as yoga or Tai Chi) as well as what will nourish your mind (connections with others, reading, music, mindfulness, TV). Be kind to yourself and patient, remember that the path won’t be linear, there may be many ups and downs.
“Recovering from treatment took much longer than I had expected or anticipated. Once I’d realised it wasn’t going to happen as quickly as I’d hoped, I made sure that I was patient with myself and took things slowly.”Sara Liyanage, Ticking Off Breast Cancer
Again, there are no set rules or guidelines for how long this can take, and the two processes merge into one another. But it is vital that you allow yourself time to re-build the foundations and recover the energy you need to start doing those things that you want to do – and, perhaps, to stop doing those things that you don’t want to do.
This is well illustrated by the woman who, once she had completed her treatment for her breast cancer asked for help to ‘sort out her job, her marriage and her cancer – and in that order.’ After eight sessions with a clinical psychologist, she had decided to change both job and husband.
Now that dramatic and planned rehabilitation programme will not be to everybody’s taste or need, but all changes – however big, however small – require energy, time and commitment – which is why you need to ensure that you have allowed yourself time to recuperate and convalesce.
You will note that the phrase ‘getting back to normal’ has not been used in this section. This is quite deliberate and because it is such a tricky issue, the topic has a section to itself (see 15. Moving Forward Getting Back into the Ordinary World).
Dr Jane Clarke, Consultant Clinical Psychologist
The information and content provided in this page is intended for information and educational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice.