Text Size: A | A | A
Home > Living with cancer > Becoming a survivor

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 finish treatment.

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.