Becoming a survivor
Winning gives you a new lease on life.
From the moment you’re diagnosed,
you can officially call yourself a
survivor — someone who has
fought and continues to fight the
battle with cancer. As the number
of people who are living fulfilling
lives after a confrontation with cancer
continues to grow, the emotional and
physical issues unique to survivorship
are coming more clearly into focus.
A longer road
The first phase of surviving cancer,
acute survivorship, encompasses the
period of diagnosis and treatment.
Your experience can have dramatic
physical and emotional consequences.
But it’s also the time when you receive
lots of support from friends and
family, and lots of attention from
your medical team.
Extended survivorship, the phase
after your treatment ends, can be
more lonely. You’re no longer making
regular visits to the doctor, phone calls
tend to slow down, and it’s easy to feel
as if the team that once focused on you
and your recovery has disappeared.
If the transition is abrupt, as it can
be, you may feel adrift and uncertain
about what’s ahead.
In addition, the second phase
of survivorship can present health
problems you may not have anticipated.
On the one hand, you may feel
as if you should be grateful to be alive.
But your illness may have left you with
new physical limitations, and you may
worry that you’re at a greater risk
for conditions like diabetes, heart
problems, or a secondary cancer.
It’s not all in your mind
What may make this period even
harder is that certain side effects of
treatment are difficult to describe to
someone who hasn’t shared them.
You may even question whether
what you’re experiencing might
all be in your head.
One such symptom,
described as chemobrain, can
be a consequence of chemotherapy.
It may make it difficult for you to
focus your thoughts, multi-task,
or remember simple details like an
acquaintance’s name. Studies have
shown that after chemotherapy,
certain areas of the brain may need to
work harder and require more blood
flow to enable you to concentrate
and remember. If it happens to you,
you may feel foggy long after you
Preparing for the future
As your treatment ends, it’s important
to prepare for the next phase of your
life. Although some cancer centers
have comprehensive aftercare
or survivorship programs
designed to make this transition
easier, others may not.
You may have to advocate for
yourself — making sure you
are given all the tools and
information you need:
- Know exactly what to
expect — ask about the
long-term side effects of
the cancer and each of your
treatments, and make sure
to get detailed answers. You
want to know when secondary
health issues may set in,
and for how long, and if any
physical limitations will be
permanent. You also need to
find out which symptoms may
be a sign of a progression or
recurrence, and whom to ask
if you are concerned.
- Make sure you know whom
from your care team to contact
with any questions or concerns. You should also find out exactly
when to return for follow-up
appointments and what tests you
will need. Those appointments are
essential, so you don’t want to skip
them even if you are feeling great.
- Ask about things you can do to keep
yourself healthy, like maintaining
a good weight and taking supplements
to protect against potential
long-term side effects. In some
cases, your doctor may prescribe
chemopreventives, drugs or therapies
that can help prevent a secondary
cancer or other serious health issue.