By Heidi Dishneau
Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner Overlake Hospital Medical Center
It takes a village. Although cancer seems like a lonely journey, surviving is definitely a group effort.
With 10 to 12 million cancer survivors living in the United States right now, the American Cancer Society expects this number to grow exponentially thanks to earlier detection and advanced care and treatment.
Although much attention is paid to the disease and treatment, what does life look like after cancer? Many people believe that once a person is cancer-free, it’s time to get right back into their routine and continue life as before. However, health-care professionals suggest survivors think about a “new normal,” a new phase of life that can benefit from as many sources of support as possible and continued and careful monitoring of their health-care needs.
Common concerns for survivors include managing stress and fatigue, addressing finances and maintaining overall long-term health. Some treatments can make survivors more vulnerable to
chronic conditions and a secondary recurrence of cancer is always a concern. Some forms of radiation treatment may also result in a secondary cancer years later. Even though survivors may have walked away from cancer, providers recommend survivors maintain close monitoring of their health to prevent recurrence.
Support is critical for survivors. Patients may be overwhelmed with support early on in their disease and often throughout treatment. But once treatment is completed, this entire layer of support is gone and patients can feel suddenly abandoned and lost.
Survivorship clinics were designed to provide continuity of post-treatment care. Staffed by nurses, nurse practitioners or social workers, the clinics can provide survivors help with issues around returning to work, as survivors often do shortly after treatment. Clinics can also offer resources for financial assistance. Patients who have not previously faced a serious illness may need help understanding medical bills, insurance forms and payment limits.
In addition, many survivors need emotional support. During active treatment, patients routinely report feeling empowered, knowing they are actively fighting the cancer and battling the disease. Once that’s complete, it can be difficult to “do nothing.” Clinic staff can help survivors adapt to their new reality. Peer-to-peer support groups can also play a pivotal role, helping connect survivors to those who have been through post-treatment struggles and successes.
Maintaining regular checkups and good preventive care with a primary-care physician is also important so survivors continue to monitor their weight, blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol. Many patients become so focused on the cancer treatment that they forget the importance of routine medical care and prevention of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other chronic conditions.
Nutrition and exercise are important considerations for survivors, and the American Cancer Research Institute has developed the following health recommendations for anyone interested in cancer prevention:
• Be as lean as possible without becoming underweight.
• Be physically active for 30 minutes each day.
• Avoid sugary drinks.
• Eat a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes.
• Limit consumption of red meat and avoid processed meats.
• Limit alcoholic drinks to two for men, one for women, per day (if consumed at all).
• Don’t use supplements exclusively to protect against cancer.
• New mothers should breastfeed infants exclusively for six months before adding other foods.
Active cancer treatment is just a small part of the journey for cancer patients. Survivors are growing in numbers every year and now survivors have the healthcare services and support to help see them through their next phase of life.