Life After Cancer
Cancer is deadly, but millions of people beat it. Surviving cancer is one of the most amazing success stories a person can have. Ending cancer treatment is exciting, but it is also challenging. There are so many questions. What happens next? Will your cancer return? How can you stay healthy?
Although your cancer treatment has ended, you will still need to have regular appointments with your doctor, usually every 3-4 months. Eventually, you may need a check-up only once or twice a year. Still, these check-ups are an important part of your follow–up care, so work with your doctor to develop the follow-up schedule that works best for you.
During a follow-up appointment, the doctor will perform a physical exam. But, this is also an important time to talk with your doctor and address any physical or emotional things that may be bothering you. Some things you may want to talk about with your doctor include:
- Symptoms that you think may be a sign of cancer’s return
- Any pain that troubles you
- Any physical problems that get in the way of your daily life or that bother you, such as fatigue, insomnia, loss of sex drive, or fluctuations in weight
- Any emotional problems that you have, and any anxiety or depression you may be feeling
- Any changes to your family medical history
- Any thing you may want to know more about, such as new treatments, current research, or clinical trials you may want to participate in
Dealing With the Fear
It is natural to feel worried before your follow-up appointment; you may be afraid the doctor will tell you that your cancer has returned. Lorraine, a breast cancer survivor, went through cancer treatment three years ago.
She said, “Since my cancer treatments ended, I have a mammogram every six months. I always get a knot in my stomach as my appointment approaches and feel like I am holding my breath when I am there. When my results come back, I breathe a sigh of relief.”
Some ideas to help you cope with your fear of cancer returning include:
- Be informed about your cancer. Ask your doctor to explain what specific signs you should watch for and learn what you can do for your health.
- Express your feelings, even if it is fear, anger, or sadness. Talk with friends, family, other cancer survivors, or a counselor. When you express strong feelings, it is sometimes easier to let them go.
Work towards developing a positive attitude. Focus on wellness and attempt to look for the good,
in hard and trying times. It is not necessary to be upbeat all the time, but try to rely on a positive attitude to help you be hopeful.
“It is a life-altering experience that makes you scared and fearful of dying,” Lorraine said “but I wasn’t going to let the cancer debilitate me. I knew I had to be positive for me. I always believed I would overcome it.”
- Find ways to help you relax and relieve stress. These can be simple activities that help take your mind off your situation; read a new book or see a movie. Soak in the bathtub or try a mediation class.
- Be as active as you can. Try to get out of your house and get involved with something you find worthwhile. Taking the focus off cancer can help alleviate some of the worrying that comes with it.
- Control what you can, and know what you cannot control. Be an advocate for yourself and be involved with your healthcare. Things you can control include keeping your medical appointments, setting a daily schedule, and making healthful changes in your lifestyle.
Developing a Wellness Plan
An important step you can take to living a healthy life after cancer is to develop a wellness plan. A wellness plan consists of ways you can take care of your physical, emotional, social, and spiritual needs. Ask your doctor to help you create a plan for your health.
Everyone’s wellness plan is different, depending on each person’s situation. Some behaviors you may want to add to your wellness plan include:
- Eat a variety of healthful foods
- Eat five or more servings of vegetables and fruits each day
- Substitute whole grains in place of processed/refined grains and sugars
- Limit eating food high in saturated fat
- Choose foods that help you maintain a healthy weight
- Maintain a healthy weight throughout the rest of your life
- Limit how much alcohol you drink, if you drink at all
- Quit smoking, if you smoke
Adopt a physically active lifestyle and participate in moderate exercise, but talk with your doctor before beginning any exercise program. Studies have found that moderate exercise can help:
- Reduce anxiety and depression
- Improve mood
- Boost self-esteem
- Reduce symptoms of fatigue, nausea, pain, and diarrhea
- Rest if you feel fatigued
- Practice relaxation to relieve pain and stress
“I know it is really important to take care of myself by eating right and exercising. But, the most crucial thing for me is to get enough sleep.” said Scott, who survived multiple myeloma and has been cancer-free for almost six years. “I feel a little more susceptible to sickness when I am tired and run-down, so I make resting a priority and my family understands.”
After cancer treatments have ended, you may just want to “get back to normal”—the way life was before the diagnosis. But, this rarely happens. Cancer has a profound impact on a person, but it doesn’t have to be for the worse. It may just take a little time to figure out just what “normal” is for you. “Yes cancer changed me,” said Lorraine, “but, I feel like there is nothing I can’t do—and now, I think I am up for trying even more.”
American Cancer Society
National Cancer Institute
Y-ME National Breast Cancer Organization
BC Cancer Agency
Canadian Cancer Society
Cancer: after treatment. American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at:
http://familydoctor.org/. Accessed November 7, 2003.
Facing forward series: life after cancer treatment. National Cancer Institute website. Available at:
http://www.cancer.gov/. Accessed November 7, 2003.
Follow-up care: questions and answers. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: http://cis.nci.nih.gov/fact/7_48.htm. Accessed November 7, 2003.
Last reviewed March 2008 by Marcin Chwistek, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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