Megan will never forget the day her doctor gave her the good news: After nearly 4 months in the hospital fighting cancer and several related complications, she was finally well enough to go home. She was thrilled. So why did she get butterflies in her stomach when she pictured herself walking down the hallway at school? Why, in the face of such amazing news, was she suddenly so nervous?
Megan's not alone. People with cancer who've been hospitalized for a long time often find themselves a little anxious about returning home.
If you've just finished a long hospital stay, you'll be excited to see all your friends. But you may have a lot of questions. Like, "Will friends treat me the same?" "Will I be able to keep up in class?" and "Will I be able to play sports again?"
You might have family concerns, too. How will brothers and sisters react? Will parents be totally overprotective? And what if you have to depend on mom and dad more than you'd like?
You might be relieved to learn that all these feelings are perfectly normal. You might also be glad to know that most teens who've experienced long hospital stays do get back into the swing of things just fine. All it takes is a little time and patience.
In the hospital, you probably missed the everyday routines of home — everything from hearing your alarm clock in the morning to catching the bus to getting called to dinner. You probably even missed those things that used to seem annoying, like doing your homework and arguing with your siblings.
Routines, no matter how small, feel good because they help us structure our lives. They let us know what to expect.
That's why it's a good idea to try to get back into a routine as soon as you can. Going back to school will automatically help you do this, but there are other ways too. For example, you can volunteer to take on some chores at home (as long as you're physically able). You also can start to take responsibility for your care, whether that means learning to change a bandage or remembering to take medications on time.
Setting some realistic expectations for yourself doesn't mean you can't accept a little extra TLC now and then. After all, that's part of the healing process too. It's just a way to send a message — to family, friends, and even yourself — that you aren't willing to let your illness define who you are and what you're capable of.
Like Megan, you've probably spent a lot of time wondering what that first day back will be like. Although the reality of that day is different for everyone, it's probably best to expect that it will be both exciting and a little overwhelming.
Fortunately, there are people who can help make your transition back to school easier. Once your return date is set, your health care team, along with your parents, can work with your teachers, school nurse, school counselor, and principal to determine what you'll need to be comfortable, safe, and successful at school.
Many people find it best to ease into things. You can start with brief visits to school. Or try a couple of days a week at first or even half days initially — whatever works for you. For extra moral support, walk in with a friend those first few times.
Because cancer and its treatment can affect how you learn, think, feel, and act, you may find that you need some extra help, especially at first. For example, some teens who've undergone radiation or chemotherapy have trouble with concentration, memory, or fine motor skills like handwriting. If you're having any difficulty, let your parents and teachers know so they can help.
Sometimes special accommodations can help — things like adaptive equipment, extra time to complete assignments, help with certain physical activities, rest breaks built into the day, or tutoring. Don't be embarrassed if any of these things are recommended for you. They're meant to help you succeed.
Your school also should find ways to include you in activities, like sports or clubs. Talk to your doctor about which activities are OK and which ones aren't. If certain things (like contact sports) aren't a good idea now, get involved in other ways, like keeping score or acting as a coach's assistant.
Watch out when it comes to overdoing things. Don't let your desire to jump back in keep you from listening to your body. If you're too tired to go to the coffee shop or mall after school, don't push it. Go home and rest, and plan to join your friends on a day when you feel up to it.
If you ever aren't feeling well, or think you might have a fever, let your teacher or school nurse know right away. Get in touch with a parent too. The sooner you deal with a problem, like an infection, the better off you'll be.
Returning to school after a long absence can sometimes bring a lot of extra attention your way. This can be harder to deal with if cancer has changed your appearance. If you're feeling a little self-conscious, like if you've lost or gained weight, try to find some clothes that fit how you are now and make you feel good.
If you've lost your hair, do what feels right for you. Maybe it's wearing nothing on your head. Or perhaps it's styling a look with hats or scarves, or finding a wig that works for you. As with any look, it may take some time to find a style you're comfortable with, so have some fun experimenting.
Your family and friends are likely to be your greatest supporters at this time. But as you probably already know, not all friends are created equal. Some stand beside you no matter what. Others can be less capable of understanding.
Once you get back to school, you may decide that some people in your circle are no longer worth your time or energy. You also might find that others want to be helpful but just don't know how. Maybe they aren't sure what to say — or maybe they have questions but are afraid of seeming insensitive.
Talking with friends about your cancer can help them understand what you went through. But how much or how little you share — and with whom — is completely up to you. If you feel comfortable going into detail about your experience, great. If not, it's perfectly OK to say, "I don't feel like talking about that right now" or to change the subject. It's all a personal choice. Your true friends will accept you whichever decision you make.
Once you go through something like cancer, you may find that things are not exactly like they were before. That's understandable. You've gone through physical and emotional changes that most of your friends and family haven't. It's not surprising that many people in your shoes describe the process of coming home as "finding a new normal."
So go easy on yourself as you find what works for you. If you have some bumps in the road — feeling stressed out, having trouble sleeping, struggling in class, or looking for excuses not to go to school, for example — talk to someone about it. Your parents, the school counselor, and your doctor are all people who want to see you do well and know how to get you the help you need to get back on track.
You might also want to try a few things at home to help you deal with your emotions. Keeping a journal, drawing or painting, or making a scrapbook are all great ways to "check in" with your feelings. They can also help you see how far you've come in your journey back to health.
Connecting with a support group — whether online or in person — is also a great way to share your fears and concerns with other teens who know exactly how you feel. Maybe you met people in hospital who have already gone through this or are going through it at the same time you are. Reach out to them. They could probably use your support just like you need theirs.
It may take a little while, but things will get easier. And who knows? Once you discover your new normal, you might find it's even better than your old one!
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: April 2014
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