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Living with cancer

Your experience with cancer can give you new perspectives.

Cancer treatment can absorb so much time and energy that it’s hard to focus on anything else. But through it all, one of the things you may have been looking forward to most, after weeks or months of planning for hospital stays, scheduling outpatient treatments, and coping with side effects, is getting back to normal.

But returning to your old life, even after treatment is over, can present enormous challenges. Though you’re the same person you were before, you’ve been through an experience that touches every aspect of your life. You may be facing physical challenges or new financial burdens that require a new approach to everyday life.

There is no doubt that cancer can turn your world upside-down. But many people find that amidst the loss, there is something to be gained as well. Cancer provides a unique opportunity for change — to reevaluate your goals, refocus your priorities, reaffirm your connections to family and friends, and make new connections as well. Living with cancer can give you a new perspective, new confidence in the face of challenges, and a new appreciation for the pleasure of living every day to its fullest.

What living with cancer means

Living with cancer is a relatively new phrase. As recently as five or ten years ago, people didn’t really think about living with cancer. They hoped to be cured, and may have feared dying from it. But living with it wasn’t really part of the picture.

But as people feel better during treatment and live longer, on average, after treatment ends, their perspective — and the perspective of the medical community — is changing. Whether the cancer is in remission or you are coping with advanced illness, it has become possible, and often necessary, to coexist with the reality of cancer — dealing with long-term side effects, guarding against recurrence, facing each new challenge as it arises, and perhaps benefiting from new therapies. In fact, many doctors compare the illness to heart disease or diabetes, serious but often manageable chronic conditions.

Finishing treatment

Surviving cancer can make you realize both how much life has to offer and how fragile it is. After you’ve finished treatment and are cancer free, the emotional toll of cancer can take a while to subside. While reaching the end of treatment and defeating cancer is incredibly exciting, it’s also natural to feel a lingering sense of unease. Some people have trouble believing that the cancer is really gone. So it may take them a while before they have the confidence to return to their normal routines.

Others find it difficult to deal with the possibility that the cancer could come back. The stressful feelings may resurface before follow-up appointments, or when you notice other health problems or possible symptoms. It’s natural to feel worried or vulnerable from time to time. But if concerns about your health interfere too much with everyday life, it’s a good idea to seek help from a professional.

Following up

One way to help fight the fear of recurrence is by making a clear follow-up plan with your doctor, and sticking to it once treatment has ended. With recurrence, early detection is key — you can’t predict whether or not your cancer will come back, but finding it early can greatly improve your odds if it does.

The frequency of follow-up appointments varies depending on the type of cancer and your overall health. Many people schedule a checkup every few months for the first year or two, and every six months or annually after that. Exams can involve CT scans, X-rays, lab tests, and sometimes just a regular physical. Routine screening at home, as appropriate, is also important. For example, learning how to correctly perform breast self-exam (BSE) is one of the best ways to detect breast cancer while it’s still curable.

Follow-up appointments can be stressful, so it’s a good idea to plan ahead. Take the time at your appointments to talk to your doctor about your questions, any lasting side effects of treatment, or troubling new symptoms.

You might want to bring a friend or family member for moral support. Depending on the tests you have, you may need to plan for transportation home.

Preventive treatment

Scientific advances have also changed the outlook for the children of some people with cancer. Genetic testing now enables individuals to uncover whether they have inherited certain mutated genes through their parents that may contribute to the development of cancer. This group, who sometimes call themselves previvors, often elect to undergo preventative treatment to reduce the risk of cancer later on.

For example, about 30,000 women have tested positive for hereditary genes that make them highly susceptible to developing certain types of breast or ovarian cancer. Of these women, about a third have chosen to have their breasts, and in some cases their ovaries, removed to prevent cancer from striking.

When considering genetic testing or preventative surgery, it’s important to remember that inheriting a mutated gene does not conclusively predict that you will develop cancer. Except in the case of certain breast cancers, in which heredity can play a major role, most cancers are caused by a wide variety of other factors.