Cancer Survivors: A Beginner’s Guide to Life After Treatment

Women's Health
on July 1, 2011

As I developed Better Than Before, I followed the progress of two friends: Abby, a fellow beauty and health editor, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in her early forties; and Lelia, a prominent environmental lawyer, who discovered she had colon cancer around the same time.

Abby’s world was practically brought to a halt by her lack of energy, enthusiasm and sense of self along with her constant and overwhelming fear of recurrence. Lelia, on the other hand, thrived. Yes, she, like many survivors, had difficulty at times dealing with fatigue, weakness, and anxiety that typically accompany cancer treatment—not to mention the irritatingly positive people who commented, “You can do it. ‘You’ll be fine,” or “Look at Lance.” (Note to the well-intentioned: A simple “Sorry you are going through this,” is much better received.) But, for the most part, she was able to have a positive attitude, an increased zest for life and to accept the side-effects of her protocol, never viewing herself as a victim. In other words, she had the hope, inspiration and courage for living well beyond cancer.

Although there may be different types of cancer and accompanying physical side effects, the psychological, social and spiritual problems are similar. And the quickest way for survivors to feel better than before is to use a variety of techniques that address all their lifestyle issues. Says Lelia: “Everything we need for healing is already inside us. We just have to be shown the pathways for how to access and use it.”

These 12 tips will get your journey started.

Doctor’s Orders

Shop for your doc. “As a patient facing a new diagnosis, you should rely on your primary physician’s advice in choosing an oncologist, but do your own homework as well,” says oncologist and internist Dr Rodney Sherman of New York City’s Lenox Hill Hospital. “Check the doctor’s board certification and ask how many patients with your tumor type he or she treats.” An experienced oncologist should see at least 50 patients per week with similar tumor types, Sherman says.

Emotional Health

Talk yourself up.The entire cancer trauma leaves its own set of psychological scars, along with those remaining from chemo, radiation and/or surgery. There is no one-size-fits-all counseling, since everyone deals with stressful situations differently. But one thing is certain—if positive energy is not replenished and negative energy is left unattended, a survivor’s most desired goal, to feel better than before, will never happen. The first step is to accept that cancer has sapped your positive energy and that you have the power to turn this around. Make “I am not a victim. I am a survivor,” your mantra and repeat it many times during the day.


Go on a Better Than Before junk food hunt. Read all the nutrition labels and get rid of all those unhealthy in your kitchen cabinets. “I call it pantry rehabilitation and refrigerator resuscitation,” says Rebecca Katz, author of The Cancer Fighting Kitchen. “Create a survivor kitchen; put in new types of food, ones that are health supportive and nutrition dense and minus chemicals, refined sugar and flour. Replace corn oil, for example, with olive oil and iodized salt with sea salt. Keep anti-cancer spices such as turmeric, cumin and cinnamon on hand, and fill your crisper drawer with healing herbs such as parsley, cilantro, basil and mint.”


Get outside.Make an effort to try a new outdoor exercise at least once. For example, Casting for Recovery offers breast cancer survivors an opportunity to experience the outdoors while learning the fundamentals of a fun, challenging new sport, fly fishing, in a supportive, educational environment. These healing retreats are held around the country and are provided at no cost to participants.


Get a glow. Says International Fashion makeup artist Louis Philippe, the personal beauty guru to many celebrity survivors: “Looking healthy is all about having a glow. If you are using a matte foundation, switch to one that is oil-based and slightly luminized to give you a natural glow. If you are unsure of colors, go for a consultation at a makeup counter at your local department store. Men should apply a tinted moisturizer. It gives the skin a good color and looks very natural, not like you’re wearing makeup.”

Natural Remedies

Try massage. Look into complimentary therapies such as massage to help alleviate post-cancer physical and psychological side effects, especially anxiety and depression. “Massage helps survivors reclaim their bodies,” says Gayle MacDonald, author of Medicine Hands: Massage Therapy for People with Cancer. She suggests seeking therapists specially trained in oncology massage, in particular lymphatic drainage, as lymphedema, a buildup of fluid in the soft tissue, is an extremely common complaint after treatment. For help finding a therapist visit


Consider volunteering. The purpose doesn’t have to be cancer related, but since you have special expertise in this area, you might like to assist others who have just been diagnosed with your type of cancer. Ask your doctor’s nurse to find a survivor from your hospital. You will find that walking him/her through the experience can be extremely empowering. If you are a year out of treatment and have experience in writing, editing, and/or teaching, you might consider volunteering for NYC’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s Visible Ink program, which promotes self expression, stress reduction, personal growth and individual success for participants who have gone through a serious illness. You can even communicate with your assigned patients via phone and e-mail or regular mail. Visit for more information.


Reconnect with your spirit. It is important to try to identify, awaken and reconnect with the spirit within you, whether through organized religion, meditation or even worshiping Mother Nature. Know that your higher power is there for you, even in your darkest and most dispirited moments, so don’t be afraid to ask for anything, as big as giving you the energy for your recovery or as trivial as helping you find a parking space. My favorite spiritual exercise: Breathe deeply and visualize your entire being surrounded and bathed in a bright white light. Now imagine this light letting only positive thoughts penetrate while it calms, protects, heals and regenerates the nerves, the mind and the heart.


Pursue your passion. Exploring a hobby motivates, inspires and keeps you mentally active. “Having a creative outlet, something fun to look forward to, helps you heal. You no longer happen to have a life—you are making life happen,” says master photographer Barb Gordon, who founded Portraits & Stories, a breast cancer survivor’s encouragement site. “Photography has universal appeal; everyone likes looking at pictures whether on a camera phone, on-line, in print, or hanging in a gallery.” A simple, inexpensive, point and shoot camera affords just as much enjoyment and learning opportunities as the more expensive options. Start out small and upgrade later.

Healthy Home

Turn your tub into a sensuous spa experience. “Bathing in herbs is both nourishing and relaxing,” says Colleen Cohan, owner of Burren Farm, an organic herbal product company. She suggests mixing dried chamomile with a handful of raw oats, placing them in cheesecloth and tied with ribbon or cooking twine, and dropping the bag into a warm tub. “You can also mix and match any fragrant herbs you like from your local farmer’s market and put them in the bag,” she says. Or let Colleen create a unique ‘healing package’ designed specifically for your individual needs.


Make a reward list. Whenever you get that burning desire for any empty-calorie food that you know isn’t going to do anything for your quality of life, write it down in your journal under “Reward” foods. Then, when you really want to treat yourself, refer to your list. You’ll be back on the ladder the next day, full of enthusiasm to start your climb again—with no guilt.

Giving Back

Bring your caregiver along for the climb. Many survivors, after all their own cancer traumas, haven’t noticed just how much their caregivers have sacrificed for them. Give back by making sure they don’t neglect their own health, that they keep their doctor and dentist appointments and have yearly cancer screenings. Encourage them to exercise with you and eat healthfully. By climbing the ladder with your caregiver, you will make each day you spend together a little better than it was before.


Found in: Women's Health