Moving Forward After You're Done With Chemotherapy

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on February 22, 2018
From the WebMD Archives

Three years after having chemotherapy for Hodgkin's lymphoma, Pete Holland is thriving.

The 39-year-old wine columnist and sommelier from Nashville is as active as ever. He commutes to work on his bike. He ran a marathon. He and his wife, Caitlyn, have a new baby girl.

While some symptoms from his treatment still linger, Holland's determination to enjoy the activities he loved before chemo helped him find his footing again.

Everyone's path forward after chemo is different. "There's no one-size-fit-all prescription," says Christopher Stephenson, DO, medical director of the Quality of Life Center at Cancer Treatment Centers of America.

Some simple strategies, though, can help you get your life back on track after your treatment is done.

Nourish Yourself

Carve out time to feed your emotional spirit. Read inspirational books or keep a journal. Express yourself through creative outlets like drawing, painting, or music.

Give yourself what you need. "Taking a nap in the middle of the day used to make me feel guilty. Not anymore!" says breast cancer survivor Meryl Kern, who runs a cancer survivorship program at Tower Cancer Research Foundation.

Finishing chemotherapy taught Kern to pay better attention to her needs. "I'm learning to say 'no' when it just doesn't feel right to say 'yes,' " she says. "It sounds selfish. But if I don't nourish myself, who will?"

Enjoy yourself. Watch a funny movie. Spend time with family and friends. "Consider trying a new hobby or activity," Stephenson says.

Make Connections

Surround yourself with support. Talk to friends. Get together with family. Meet up with people in your community.

"Join a support group with other survivors to establish a connection with others who've had similar experiences," suggests Stephenson.

Boost Your Self-Image

If you've had cognitive or physical changes, you may not feel quite like yourself. Give it time. Try to remember you're still the same person on the inside.

A new look -- like a hairstyle, hair color, makeup, or clothes -- can give you a confidence boost.

For Holland, it meant letting go of how his hair used to look. "It came back, but it's thinner and just not the same," he says.

He found the upside. "I used to shave my head every once in a while anyway. Now I love the convenience, especially since I ride my bike everywhere."

Sample Something

"The cancer experience should spark a pursuit of new experiences," says Arash Asher, MD, director of cancer rehabilitation and survivorship at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Maybe you're game for something adventurous, like going on a safari. Maybe you've always wanted to learn Japanese calligraphy. Maybe you're ready to take on a new fitness challenge, like mountain biking or yoga.

Of course, new experiences may be right in front of you. After treatment, Asher says, many people find joy from the most routine experiences, like sunsets, conversations, poems, movies, walks, and nature.

For Holland, a devoted runner, it's walking. "When I'm not up for the intensity of a run, I'll take the dog out for an hour or two and listen to podcasts, grab a sandwich, and just get out," he says. "My co-workers think I'm crazy when I tell them I'm walking the 4 miles home at 11 p.m., but now it's an essential part of my physical life."

Set Goals

This is your chance to refocus on what matters most. Decide what's important and let it lead the way.

"We should always be setting goals," Asher says. "I just spoke to a 98-year-old who spoke of her goal to finish mastering Spanish. We all need dreams to feel alive, and I believe that there are always realistic dreams we can pursue."

Sometimes it means reaching for the stars. Other times it's tweaking your goals so they're a better fit.

After chemotherapy, Holland took his expectations down a notch.

"Recently I've started running with a group called the Crazy Owls, who run trails at night. I lag behind a few of the guys on the runs -- guys I think I would have beaten in my prime," he says. "Even though I'm slower than before, it's very satisfying to be out there, whether I'm running ahead or lagging behind."

Embrace Your Experiences or Leave Them Behind

Not everyone has the same ideas about how to view life after chemo, and that's OK.

"Much of my success in finding a new normal has been in pushing to get back to the old normal --to refuse to let the neuropathy [nerve damage] and lung damage prevent me from bicycling and trail running and doing the things I did before treatment," Holland says.

Asher says some people learn to embrace their experience with cancer. Instead of seeing it as a loss or limitation, it becomes a source of empowerment. It changes their lenses and can spark growth, wisdom, and gratitude.

"I think the most impressive changes I've seen from my patients are those who seem to become a more authentic version of themselves as a result of the experience," he says.

Show Sources


Arash Asher, MD, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Pete Holland, cancer survivor.

Meryl Kern, Tower Cancer Research Foundation.

Christopher Stephenson, DO, Cancer Treatment Centers of America.

American Cancer Society: "Life After Cancer."

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