Living with and beyond cancer

Reflections on the cancer experience

People we spoke to whose cancer had been cured or was in remission, talked about the extent to which they felt able to put the experience behind them and about what had helped them to overcome the illness. While some said their cancer was always in the back of their mind, or that they were sometimes reminded of it, others said they rarely thought about it and their life had moved on (see also ‘Facing the future). It was common for the illness to be referred to as merely 'an episode' in their life, a bad time, a blip, or a page in the book of life, and it was important to live your life and not let it ruin the rest of your life. Some said it was hard to believe now that it had happened to them and that time was a great healer. People who were still attending hospital check-ups said they felt odd waiting among patients who were still having cancer treatment.
Support from other people had been important in helping many through their illness and treatment. Family, friends, neighbours, colleagues and health professionals had all played their part. Some people had joined or started a local support group in order to share experiences with others who had been through a similar experience (see also ‘Raising awareness and supporting others’). Not everyone found this helpful, and others said they hadn’t wanted to socialise with other people with cancer, so had declined to join a group. Some said they had felt no need for this kind of support or that the group met at an inconvenient time or place for them. Others hadn’t wanted to disclose their private business with strangers or had been wary of becoming emotionally drained by learning about other people’s problems at a time when they needed to focus on their own needs. Many people had felt well supported but others said they’d had no-one to talk to at crucial times in their illness. One woman said she had found it helpful to contact a national support organisation after her breast cancer operation.
Religious faith had been another source of support for some people. They felt a sense of peace resulting from a belief that a higher power was watching over them, and because people in their religious community were praying for them. Some had felt certain that God would not let them die, while others felt a sense of acceptance whatever the outcome of the illness.
It was common for people to say that being positive had helped them to overcome their cancer. Positive thinking means different things to different people. For some it was to do with a determination to fight the cancer or deal with it and get on with life, while for others it meant looking for the positive aspects of the situation and being thankful for what they had in life. Another way was to remain cheerful and optimistic. Several said they tried not to take the cancer too seriously; some even used humour when talking about it to others. Using humour can help people to overcome any embarrassment when talking about parts of their body.
Some people feel that adopting a positive attitude, rather than feeling sad or having negative thoughts, can help recovery or even prevent the cancer from coming back. Many factors influence the development of cancer and there is so far no evidence that positive thinking can alter its course, although research continues. Some people pointed out that no-one can be positive all the time, and most people living with cancer will have times when they feel tired, anxious, depressed or angry; people should therefore not be pressurised to be positive because they might feel a failure if they do not succeed or if they die from their cancer.
How long it takes people to recover from cancer depends on the type of cancer and the treatments they had. While some people were able to return to normal life quite quickly, others found it took a long time to recover fully.
People often felt proud of the way they had coped with having cancer and glad that they had survived. Some believed they had coped well because previous challenging life experiences had made them resilient. Others said they had learned that cancer wasn’t necessarily a death sentence and they liked to set an example to others that there could be life after cancer. Many went on to provide support to other people going through cancer treatment (see ‘Raising awareness and supporting others’).
However, some people occasionally felt guilty that they had done well or survived their cancer when other people they knew hadn't.

Last reviewed October 2018.


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