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After treatment

For many people, the end of active treatment is a time of relief and celebration, but it can also be a time of mixed emotions. Children and teenagers may expect life to return to normal straightaway, but the person who has had treatment may be re-evaluating their priorities. Your family might need to find a “new normal”.

What do children need to know?

It may help children and young people to know that cancer can be a life-changing experience for many people. Once treatment has finished, some people want life to return to normal as soon as possible, while others feel they need to re-evaluate their life.

This process is often called finding a new normal, and it may take months or years. The person who has completed cancer treatment may:

Make changes – This period can be unsettling and lead to big life changes, such as choosing a new career, reassessing relationships, improving eating habits or starting a new exercise program.

Continue to feel the physical impact – The physical effects of cancer sometimes last long after the treatment is over. Fatigue is a problem for most people who have had cancer treatment and it can make it difficult to complete everyday activities. Many people have to cope with temporary or permanent side effects.

Worry about recurrence – One of the major fears people have is that the cancer might come back. This is an understandable concern, which can be triggered by regular check-ups and even minor aches and pains.

For more information, download our ‘Living Well After Cancer’ booklet, or call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for a free copy.

How children react

Like many adults, children may find it hard to understand why things simply can’t go back to the way they were before the cancer. They’ve had to deal with changes while their parent or other family member was sick, and now they probably want to get back to normal. Your kids may:

Expect the person who had cancer to bounce back – Often children don’t understand that fatigue can continue after cancer treatment is over. This can lead to disappointment and frustration.

Become clingy – Separation anxiety that started during treatment may continue well after treatment is over.

Worry the cancer will return – The cancer returning is often a big fear for children and young people, just as it is for the person who had cancer. You can reassure children that regular check-ups will help monitor for cancer.

Carry on as if the cancer never happened – Some children may move on in life as if the cancer never happened.

Family life after treatment

You may celebrate the end of cancer treatment and acknowledge that it has been a difficult period for everyone; this is particularly important for teenagers. Your children have lived with worry for months and may need your permission to relax and have fun again. Thank them for their role in keeping the family going and supporting you.

Let the family know how you’re feeling emotionally and physically so they understand if you’re not bouncing back as quickly as they expected. It may be helpful to remind your family that treatment effects are likely to last for a while after treatment finishes.

Keep using the emotions thermometer if you have found it helpful. Be open about your fears, such as if you’re feeling anxious before a check-up. This may encourage your kids to talk
about their own fears.

Do things at your own pace, and avoid any pressure to return to “normal” activities. You may want to ask yourself: Am I doing what fulfils me? Am I doing what I want to do? What is  important to me?

Explain any changes to the family’s lifestyle to your children and negotiate where possible.  During your recovery, you may be able to encourage your family to join you in making some healthy lifestyle changes – for example, you could do light exercise together, or make healthy changes to the kids’ diets as well as your own.

Expect good days and bad days – for both the adults and the children in the family. Focus on one day at a time.

Answering key questions

Q: Will the cancer come back?

You probably wish you could tell your children that everything will be fine now, but the uncertainty of cancer often lasts long after treatment is over. Along with giving your children a hopeful message, this may be a chance to listen to their concerns about “What if?”. Allowing children to talk about their fears and concerns is important in helping them cope.

“The treatment is over and we all hope that will be the end of it. We hope that the cancer won’t come back, but the doctors will keep a careful eye on the cancer with check-ups every now and then. If the cancer does come back, I will have some more treatment, which we hope would make it go away again. We’ll let you know if that happens.”

Q: Why are you still tired?

Cancer survivors often feel tired for many months after treatment. This can be hard for kids who want their energetic parent, grandparent or friend back.

“I’m feeling a lot better, but the doctor said it might take many months, even a year, to get all my energy back.”

“The treatment was worth it because now I’m better and the cancer has gone away, but it took a lot out of me and now my body needs time to recover. This is normal for people in my  situation.”

Q: Can’t we get back to normal now?

You may need to take some time to process the ways that cancer has affected you, but this will probably be difficult for children, particularly younger ones, to understand.

It may be helpful to explain that not everything will be the same as it was before, but that  doesn’t have to be a bad thing. The new normal could actually offer some benefits. Many people who’ve had cancer can see positive outcomes from the experience, and it may help to
highlight these to the kids.

“Day-to-day life will start to get more like normal as I feel better, but there may be some  changes to the way we do things, like … [the way we eat/how much I go to work/how much time we spend together as a family]. Maybe we can also find some new hobbies to do together.”

“We’ve all been through a lot and I know it’s been hard for you too. Things might not get back to exactly how they were before I got sick, but together we can find a new way that works for all of us.”

Key points: After treatment

  • People who have had treatment for cancer often have mixed emotions.
  • It may be difficult to settle back into how life was before the cancer diagnosis.
  • Kids and young people might continue to have their own fears and worries about the cancer.
  • Children may find it hard to understand why life can’t go back to normal. It could help to explain that the family will have to find a new normal.
  • Give your children permission to have fun and to re-establish their own new normal along
    with you.
  • It’s important to keep communicating and sharing your feelings with each other.

Featured resource

Talking to Kids about Cancer

Download PDF

This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed February 2023 by the following expert content reviewers: Prof Jane Turner AM, International Psycho-Oncology Society President Emeritus, The University of Queensland, QLD; Taylor Baker, Consumer; Dr Ben Britton, Principal Clinical and Health Psychologist, Head of Psychology, Hunter New England Mental Health, NSW; Camp Quality; Dr Lisa Cuddeford, Head of Department, WA Paediatric Palliative Care Service, Perth Children’s Hospital, WA; A/Prof Peter Downie, Head, Paediatric Haematology–Oncology and Director, Children’s Cancer Centre, Monash Children’s Hospital, VIC; Dr Sarah Ellis, Clinical Psychologist, Kids Cancer Centre, Sydney Children’s Hospital, NSW; Malia Emberson-Lafoa’i, Consumer; Kate Fernandez, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Jane Gillard, Consumer; Mary McGowan OAM, International Childhood Cancer Advocate, VIC; Annette Polizois, Senior Social Worker, Women, Family and Emergency Care Team, Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW; Rhondda Rytmeister, Clinical Psychologist, HeadWayHealth (formerly Snr Clinical Psychologist, The Cancer Centre for Children, Westmead, NSW); Nadine Street, Head of Social Work and Social Welfare, HNE Mental Health Service, NSW; Warren Summers, Online Counsellor, Canteen, NSW.

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