As of January 2016, it is estimated that there are 15.5 million cancer survivors in the United States, representing 4.8% of the population. Everyone has a unique experience with life after cancer treatment. While some are able to resume their lives with minimal changes, many people have some residual effects — either emotional, physical or both.
There is no one “normal” after cancer treatment — it is unique to every individual. In this blog, we discuss some of the common issues cancer survivors deal with.
Cancer survivorship can be an emotional roller coaster
Yay, treatment is over!
But will it come back? How will my life be different? What can my body handle now?
With cancer treatment, there is a plan of action and a schedule to be followed. After treatment, survivors may feel at loose ends. They may have questions and concerns, but without the support and care structure they had during treatment. Family and friends may simply feel relieved and not think there is anything to worry about, while the survivor could feel worried, sad, angry, guilty or even emotionless or numb.
These emotions can contribute to feelings of isolation, as well. When you were in treatment, you had a care team paying attention to your every symptom, now you may feel you’re on your own. Establishing a follow-up care plan with your medical team can help ease some worries and give you a plan of attack for this next phase in your life.
Breast cancer survivor Rachelle Pellissier managed her treatment with steely resolve, calm and pragmatism. So, it was a shock to her when, a month post-treatment, she sunk into a deep depression. “Iam not a person who cries and I was just weepy all the time,” she explains. She did not link her sadness and anxiety with her cancer. “I didn’t understand why I was sad, but I knew I needed help.” Rachelle did seek help from a psychiatrist who prescribed anti-depressants. “The pills helped instantly,” she says. “That was four years ago. Now I get pretty anxious around my annual mammogram, but once I get the all-clear I’m good.”
Seek and use resources and support
One thing that never occurred to Rachelle was that she may benefit from talking with other cancer survivors, something she acknowledges now might have been a big help in the months following her treatment. A variety of support groups exist in the cancer community for those in treatment, as well as survivors and caregivers. All kinds of survivorship resources are accessible through the Nevada Cancer Coalition’s searchable resource directory, which can be filtered by Survivorship or Support Programs.
Physical challenges survivors often face
Ongoing pain — Chemotherapy and surgery can result in nerve damage, causing lingering pain. Survivors may also experience pain in a missing limb or breast, known as phantom pain. Options include: pain medications, physical therapy, acupuncture, meditation and braces.
Neuropathy – Nerve damage from cancer treatment can result in limb numbness, tingling, burning, weakness; sudden, sharp, stabbing, or electric shock pain sensations; loss of sensation of touch; loss of balance or difficulty walking; clumsiness; trouble picking up objects or buttoning clothes; hearing loss; jaw pain; constipation; and being more—or less—sensitive to heat and cold. Treatments include medications, topical creams and pain patches.
Weight changes – Cancer treatment can result in unwanted weight gain or weight loss. Give yourself time to achieve your weight goals. Consider strength-building exercises if you have lost muscle or gained fat. If you’ve lost your appetite, start with small meals and focus on your favorite foods. Getting and staying active benefits those working to gain or lose weight.
Memory and concentration changes — Many survivors describe this as “brain fog” or “chemobrain.” They may have problems paying attention, finding the right word, or remembering new things. Sometimes these changes occur right away and sometimes they appear well after treatment ends. To help, jot things down in a notebook to help plan your day and remember what you need to do. Use phone alarms to remind you of events and activities that require your attention.
Fatigue — For some, fatigue gets better over time. Some people, especially those who have had bone marrow transplants, may still feel energy loss years later. Plan for your energy level and don’t ask your body to do more than it’s up for. Nap or rest throughout your day if you can. As with your treatment, ask for help and allow others to do so. Prioritize how to expend your energy.
Understanding how to manage your health post-cancer can not only be mentally reassuring, it can keep you healthier. All cancer survivors should see a health care provider for regular medical checkups once you're finished with treatment for as long as your provider deems necessary. Checkups may include bloodwork, as well as other tests and procedures that look for any changes in your health, or any problems that may occur due to your cancer treatment. These visits are also a time to check for physical and emotional problems that could develop months or years after treatment ends.
Bill Glasscock, a 13-year survivor of prostate cancer, had regular follow-up appointments with his oncologist for about six months following the completion of his chemotherapy. “I had some depressionwhen I was going through chemotherapy,” Bill explains, “but when my doctor declared me cancer-free, I had a great sense of relief and the depression lifted.” Now Bill just sees his primary care doctor for annual checks-ups and PSA checks. “I’m a very upbeat, positive person,” he says. “I don’t think about my cancer now.”
Keeping cancer reoccurrence at bay
Very often we do not have control over when and how cancer strikes. But there are some things that all of us — survivors and those who have never had cancer — can do to reduce our risk. Two of the most important things we can do are stopping smoking and protecting our skin. You can find comprehensive smoking cessation and skin cancer prevention resources on the Nevada Cancer Coalition website.
Healthy eating and regular exercise can also play a pivotal role in health maintenance and cancer prevention. Practicing good nutrition habits and staying active serve to prevent heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and other chronic conditions. These lifestyle approaches also help manage weight and benefit the health of your bones, muscles and ligaments.
The National Cancer Institute has created an entire free, downloadable booklet addressing survivorship issues. It’s filled with practical ways to deal with common problems and guidelines for managing physical, social, and emotional health.