Life After Cancer

Life after breast cancer: navigating emotional and physical challenges

Posted by Dr Jane Clark on 02 July 2021

woman lying on a bed with a cup of tea looking thoughtful

The emotional impact of cancer treatment can be profound and far-reaching: often extending far beyond the date when you finish your treatment. You may experience a rollercoaster of emotions, ranging from fear, anxiety, and uncertainty to gratitude, hope, and resilience. One of the most common challenges faced by cancer survivors is dealing with uncertainty and fear. The spectre of recurrence can cast a long shadow over your life, making it difficult to feel secure and at ease. Relationships with loved ones can become strained as friends and family grapple with their own emotions and worries. Your social life may also be affected, as you may withdraw from activities or feel self-conscious about your appearance or health. If any of this is ringing true for you, Dr Jane Clark has advice that will resonate: this series of articles aims to guide you through this transformative journey by highlighting – and advising on – the various challenges you may encounter as you rebuild trust in your body, in yourself, in the healthcare system, and in your social world. Read on for Dr Clark’s insight and advice.

Introduction and first thoughts

Back in the 1990s there was an increasing focus was on how to live well after an experience of cancer, as the treatment improved and increasing numbers of people were surviving after a diagnosis of cancer. Dr Peter Harvey (Consultant Clinical Psychologist, working in Birmingham and then Leeds) was invited to give a talk in 1999 at the National Conference of Cancer Self-Helps Groups and from here he refined and expanded his work on this important area. Just after he retired in 2007, Peter spent six months updating with work with the help of Dr Jane Clark, another Clinical Psychologist. This was published on the Cancer Counselling Trust’s website in 2004.

Dr Jane Clark is now a Consultant Clinical Psychologist in Leeds. She says,

I have had the privilege of working with people who have or have had cancer for nearly twenty years. I originally trained in Hull and worked with Professor Lesley Walker, who pioneered the idea of cancer drop-in centres to provide emotional support to those going through treatment. After qualifying, I moved to work in Leeds and have worked at the Cancer Centre in Leeds since 2004. I have been able to listen and help people to make sense of their experiences and emotions both during and after treatment for cancer.

Everyone’s story is different but there are some common themes in the distress and the process of adjustment that people experience. I have noticed that people sharing their experiences helps them to understand that they are not alone and they feel validated in their emotional responses. This has become increasingly common with the advent of blogs and the development of the supportive cancer community.

There are now so many voices of experience from the cancer community that I sometimes wonder if there is still place for a psychologist to provide a perspective. But I think that we can provide some understanding of the range of experiences, as we speak to so many different people, and we can provide a perspective from the field of psychology in understanding reactions to trauma and adjustment after significant life events.

I hope that this series of articles will help by summarising some of the key emotional and psychological experiences and providing a psychological perspective on them. The transcripts from the talks that Peter gave have been shared widely and various forms can be found all over the internet.

Many, many people have found his work to be helpful so Sara – the founder of the Ticking Off Breast Cancer website – and I wanted to refresh the information and make it accessible and relevant to people today trying to move on the from experience of cancer. Many of the words are still Peter’s original work. He has given his consent and support to this refreshed version. We both really hope this is helpful and useful to you.”

Coping with the aftermath of life after cancer treatment

Imagine, for a moment, that your progress through life is like being on a small boat.

For most of the time you sail along weathering both the expected and unanticipated storms that occur in every life. Then, all of a sudden and without warning, the most horrendous storm blows up – much worse than any you have experienced before and completely unexpectedly.

Your boat is tossed all over the place, you are lashed by rain and wind, the waves crash about you, their size obliterating the horizon and restricting your vision to the immediate surroundings. You fear for your life and hang on to whatever is to hand to stop yourself from being washed overboard.

This rather dramatic narrative attempts to put into words what the experience of being diagnosed and treated for cancer might be like for some of you. Whilst not everyone goes through it in this way, the enormous upheaval and threat that many people report seems to be echoed in that brief description.

But, like treatment, the turmoil subsides and there is the beginning of the calm after the storm. You look around at your boat, battered and damaged though it is, and it is still afloat.

There is a need to repair and mend those bits that have been broken or damaged. Some items may be lost, washed overboard and you will have to find ways of proceeding in spite of these losses. Once you have looked over the boat, you gingerly look out to sea. But instead of a clear blue ocean and cloudless sky you see little but mist and fog. Your sea charts have been lost in the storm. You are not really sure of your position, whether you are in the same place as before, pointing in the same direction. You may also wonder whether you want to go on along the same path as before.

The sea, though calmer, is still unsettled and your world feels unstable under your feet. Thoughts of where to go, what next, how to get help assault you and add to your worry and uncertainty.

This may be what it feels like for you when your treatment ends. Still reeling from the physical, emotional and practical demands of treatment you are left contemplating an uncertain and possibly frightening future. The end of treatment may be one of the most difficult and complex times for you.

It may make demands on you that you could not imagine whilst you were undergoing treatment. And it may be the time when you feel the most in need of support but least able to ask for it and when it seems least available.

THIS SERIES OF ARTICLES

The series of articles forming this section of the website is designed to help you deal with some of these demands and pressures, to guide you and support you. How you use it is entirely up to you. It has been divided up into easily digestible chunks so that you can take things at your own pace and follow things up in a way that suits you.

You do not need to read all of this at once. You can take it one step at a time depending on how you feel. Because it has been designed to be read in independent parts you may find some repetition – this is unavoidable as these issues overlap and inter-twine.

Dr Jane Clark, Consultant Clinical Psychologist

Further Information

The next article in this series of articles covers feelings of loss that you might experience after breast cancer and you can read it here 2: Life After Breast Cancer: Feelings of Loss

If you’re looking for more support, Future Dreams hold a range of support groups, classes, workshops and events to help you and your carers during your breast cancer diagnosis. These are held both online and in person at the London-based Future Dreams House. To see what’s on offer and to book your place, see here.

To return to the homepage of our Information Hub, click here where you can access more helpful information, practical advice, personal stories and more.

This page was reviewed in April 2024 by the Future Dreams team and Dr Jane Clark.

The information and content provided in all guest articles is intended for information and educational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice. It is important that all personalised care decisions should be made by your medical team. Please contact your medical team for advice on anything covered in this article and/or in relation to your personal situation. Please note that unless otherwise stated, Future Dreams has no affiliation to the guest author of this article and he/she/they have not been paid to write this article. There may be alternative options/products/information available which we encourage you to research when making decisions about treatment and support. The content of this article was created by Dr Jane Clark, Consultant Clinical Psychologist and we accept no responsibility for the accuracy or otherwise of the contents of this article.

©️ 2023 Jane Clark and Peter Harvey. With quotes from the creators of the Ticking off Breast Cancer website (now Future Dreams Information Hub). All rights reserved.

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