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.
Many people describe the process being diagnosed and treated for cancer as being similar to being on an emotional rollercoaster. While you are on this rollercoaster, you are strapped in and sent off into an unknown world that is not of your choosing. You have to go where the rollercoaster takes you and you know that there is nothing that you can do about it until you emerge, wobbly and battered at the other end. It is only afterwards, when you are back on solid ground again, that you can look back and view what you have experienced and start to make sense of everything.
That is why many people need to take stock emotionally once the rollercoaster of treatment has stopped (or paused).
So, alongside your physical recovery, it is important to allow yourself some space to think and talk about the emotional experience of cancer and its treatment.
WHY DON’T I FEEL HAPPIER?
There are two sets of feelings that commonly arise at the time of treatment finishing which need to be talked about.
The first of these is a sense of abandonment. This makes sense. After all, for many weeks – if not months – you will have been cared for by a large number of people, all of whom have your welfare and well-being at heart.
You may have met other patients and relatives with whom you have been able to swap stories and get powerful support from someone who really understands. There has always been someone there to check out that little niggling pain or troublesome symptom. There has been a routine, a structure for you to trust in. Then all of a sudden, it goes.
“I got the impression of being balanced on a plank somewhere high up and with nothing to grab hold of. I felt as if I were about to fall off into some abyss.”
Such feelings of aloneness and abandonment are not in any way a criticism of the people who have been caring for you. It is simply a reflection of the fact that they now have to focus on those who are starting out on the process that you have completed.
The second set of feelings that some people experience is a sense of disappointment that they don’t feel more joy and happiness at the end of treatment, but rather a sense of let-down, anti-climax almost. This can be in marked contrast to what they might have expected. How it is that hoped-for happiness does not arise?
There are a number of plausible explanations. One of these is that it hasn’t actually finished as you may still be experiencing the effects of treatment even though its delivery is complete. You may also be still visiting clinic for check-ups, so you are never really free of reminders of what you have been though. And there is the uncertainty and sense of threat that may continue well beyond the actual end of treatment (see Moving Forward 7: Living with Uncertainty).
There is also the fact that you may be completely de-energised – plain exhausted – which does not leave much spare capacity for unrestrained ecstasy (see Moving Forward 10: Dealing with Fatigue).
In addition, you will have been looking forward to the absence of something unpleasant rather than the eager anticipation of the arrival of something pleasant. In other words, the end of treatment is the end of, very probably, a negative and unpleasant time and whilst this may bring a sense of relief, it does not mean the arrival of something positive so may not bring a sense of joy and happiness. (So perhaps it’s not such a surprise that that there is lack of elation as treatment finishes.)
KEEPING THINGS ON A LEVEL
Some people worry about celebrating the end of treatment for fear that this celebration will somehow tempt the cancer to return.
“If I truly believe that it’s gone then it will bite me in the bum by coming back”
It’s almost as if it’s too risky to celebrate the success of finishing treatment.
“If I get too high celebrating the possibility that the cancer has gone then it will be too hard a fall if/when it comes back again”
Sometimes it is tempting to keep your emotions on a level as it feels safe. It makes me think of the ‘Heart and the Bottle’ children’s book (by Oliver Jeffers, which I highly recommend). It tells the story of a curious and inquisitive child who suffers a bereavement. She decides to put her heart in a safe place – in a bottle around her neck. She thinks this solution fixes things but, over time, she realises what she is missing out on. I would encourage you to think about what you lose by trying to stay on a level in a bid to protect yourself from the potential falls. We are vulnerable when we live, love and experience the highs and lows of life but can you tolerate that vulnerability (and the possible lows) in order to feel the full joy and possibility of life?
Only you can make that decision but consider the possibility that you can define your life and your emotions rather than the cancer.
Dr Jane Clark, 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.