Being diagnosed with cancer is life-changing, and being a cancer survivor is life-altering. The journey of cancer survivorship is unique for each individual, but for all survivors, it can be filled with a new appreciation and acceptance of life.
In this WBAL-AM "Know Your Health" radio clip, Dr. Miller discusses cancer survivorship.
Who is a cancer survivor?
A cancer survivor is someone who has lived through cancer from the moment of diagnosis, through treatment and beyond. There are 12 million cancer survivors today in the United States. Most have completed their treatment years, even decades, earlier.
Seasons of Survivorship
Seasons of cancer survivorship describe specific periods survivors may experience. There are four main seasons:
- Acute Survivorship – The period of time when a person is diagnosed and treated for cancer.
- Transitional Survivorship - The period immediately after treatment is completed. Survivors may feel a mix of emotions during this period, including joy and celebration, but they may also feel depressed or isolated.
- Extended Survivorship – The period of several years when treatment is completed but survivors continue follow-up care with surveillance.
- Permanent Survivorship – This is an extended period of time that has passed since the last treatment. Survivors see their doctors less often, so living a healthy lifestyle becomes increasingly important.
Video - Dr. Miller discusses the seasons of survivorship
Emotional Side Effects of Cancer
Surviving cancer can be an emotional roller coaster. Every cancer survivor is unique, so there are no right or wrong reactions. The most common emotions cancer survivors may experience are:
- Sense of loss
It is important for cancer survivors to recognize their emotions and deal with them in a positive and productive manner. Some ways to deal with these emotional challenges include:
- Talking to friends and loved ones
- Discussing their experience with a mental health professional
- Engaging in fun activities
- Eating healthy foods
- Joining a cancer support group
Video - Dr. Miller discusses worries that cancer patients have after treatment
Physical Side Effects of Cancer
Along with dealing with a variety of emotions, cancer survivors may endure a wide range of physical challenges. These side effects tend to vary for each individual, depending on the type of treatment they received.
Some physical side effects include:
- Loss of appetite
- Blood clots
- Hair loss
- Weight loss/gain
- Heart problems
You can see an entire list of side effects on Cancer.Net.
The best ways to deal with physical side effects are to exercise, to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet, and to see your primary care physician on a regular basis.
Video - Dr. Miller discusses the short-, late- and long-term side effects of cancer
Living Well Beyond Cancer – Prevention of Recurrence
After medical treatment, cancer survivors are still at risk for recurrence of the cancer and the development of a second cancer. To reduce these risks, cancer survivors can take the following steps to Living Well Beyond Cancer:
Follow-Up Visits - It is importance for cancer survivors to have regular follow-up medical appointments with their primary care physician and their oncologist. Doctors can explain what is happening to a survivor’s body and how it can be treated.
Exercise – Exercising is one of the best ways to lower a cancer survivor’s risk of recurrence. Physical activity can also lower blood pressure, helps to reduce stress, and can help reduce the risk for developing diabetes and heart disease.
Diet and Nutrition – Cancer survivors should eat a "colorful" diet of fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are low in fat, packed full of vitamins and minerals, and can help the survivor maintain a healthy weight. Other foods that help prevent cancer from recurring are whole grains and beans.
Avoid Tobacco Products – Smoking is a proven cause of lung cancer, and it is associated with the risk for the development of other cancers, stroke, heart disease, emphysema and asthma. Cancer survivors should avoid the use of all tobacco products, as well as exposure to secondhand smoke.
Fertility and Cancer Survivorship
One side effect of cancer treatment in both men and women is that it can lead to infertility. Infertility can be a temporary or permanent side effect, depending on the type of treatment.
How does this happen? Cancer treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy can all cause infertility in these ways:
Surgery – Some surgery on the sex organs or around the sex organs can reduce fertility.
Chemotherapy – The effects depend on the type of chemotherapy and the dose.
Radiation Therapy – The effects depend on the dose of radiation and where the body was treated.
Other factors that can affect fertility include age, gender, and physical and sexual maturation.
The following are valuable resources for cancer survivors:
LiveStrong - www.livestrong.com
MyOncFertility - www.myoncofertility.org
American Cancer Society - www.cancer.org
Journey Forward - www.journeyforward.org
Miller, Kenneth D. (Ed.). (2008). Choices in Breast Cancer Treatment: Medical Specialists and Cancer Survivors Tell You What You Need to Know (A Johns Hopkins Press Health Book). Johns Hopkins Press.
Miller, Kenneth D. (2009). Medical and Psychosocial Care of the Cancer Survivor. Jones and Bartlett.
Miller, Kenneth D. (Ed.). (2012). Excellent Care for Cancer Survivors: A Guide to Fully Meet Their Needs in Medical Offices and in the Community (The Praeger Series on Contemporary Health and Living). Praeger Press.
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