Chemotherapy – the use of toxic chemicals to kill cancer cells – is one of the most common cancer treatments. And while chemotherapy has a long history of proven success, it can take a physical and mental toll on patients.
Chemo can make you feel awful, and patients often want to know, “Can we have a normal life after a cancer treatment?”
It can be hard to imagine getting back to normal life.
“Sometimes the treatment can be as rough as the disease,” said Erin Mclaughlin, an oncology nurse navigator at OSF HealthCare. “It’s important to remind patients that treatment will pass, and they will regain normalcy.
“When you’re going through chemo, it’s easier to push through mentally when there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
What to expect after chemo
Patricia Ramirez is an oncology nurse navigator at OSF HealthCare who specializes in breast cancer, for which most patients are treated with surgery, chemo or both.
A return to normalcy is typical, but it takes a while – usually six months or so.
“All who have done chemo do finally get back to normal,” Patricia said. “Treatment for breast cancer can take a whole year, but six months after it ends, life comes back – incisions heal, hair grows back, chemo brain fog lifts.”
Patricia often has survivors say they can’t believe they got back to feeling 100% normal. They didn’t think it was possible.
What can you do to recover from chemotherapy?
Chemo leaves people feeling drained of energy, prompting them to ask about how to regain my energy after cancer treatment.
The best thing you can do to regain energy and fight the side effects of chemo is to make healthy life choices. That means getting good rest, eating healthy foods and staying as active as you can safely handle.
Facing life after cancer?
It can help you recover mentally, too, to remember you’re not alone. There are a lot of people out there going through the similar experiences.
Seek support groups or other support resources.
“Having a place to vent feelings and worries can really help you deal with what can otherwise be a very isolating experience,” Erin said. “I find such strength and beauty in people supporting each other.”
Long-term effects of cancer treatment
Most chemotherapy side effects go away in time, but some can linger and require monitoring or treatment.
Possible long-term side effects of chemo include damage to your heart and peripheral neuropathy, in which damaged nerves can cause pain, weakness or numbness in the extremities – arms, hands, legs and feet.
Patients being treated for incurable advanced stages of cancer often go through chemo for palliative reasons.
“In those cases there is no return to normal because chemo is giving us more time, not curing the disease,” Erin said. “Treatment is the new normal, and it’s scary to talk about, but we want to be honest – palliative treatment can be instrumental in relieving severe symptoms but will not eradicate all of the cancer.
“We want patients to know that they have the right to speak up and discuss their goals with their health care team. If active treatment is no longer meeting those goals, they should be able to talk comfortably and honestly about it with their physicians and nurses.”
Last Updated: February 15, 2023