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Embracing Survivorship After Breast Cancer

by Carolyn Vachani, RN, MSN, AOCN

Breast Cancer image

“Congratulations! We’ll see you in six months.” You’ve been eagerly anticipating this announcement since you first heard the words “You have breast cancer.” But after settling in to a routine of treatments, scans, and doctor’s appointments, the news that you’ve beaten breast cancer might provoke an unexpected response.

Although you may have planned to celebrate the end of treatment, when the time comes, you may be surprised to find yourself bogged down by feelings of fear, uncertainty, and vulnerability, not to mention lingering side effects. You may have expected to get back to life as you knew it before cancer, but things have changed. You have changed.

While each breast cancer survivor has to find her own way of settling into her post-cancer life, there are some universal actions you can take to help make the transition a little easier.

Kick fear to the curb.
One of the most common fears people have after cancer treatment is fear that the cancer will return. Unfortunately, this fear may never completely go away. That’s not to say, however, that it doesn’t get easier to manage. Think of fear as a passenger in your car. Fear rides up front with you for a while, but as time goes by, you pick up new strategies for coping with difficult emotions, sending fear to the backseat. As you continue to pick up coping strategies, you have less and less room in your car for fear. Eventually, it is forced out of the car completely, and it becomes merely a reflection in your rearview mirror.

Talk with your medical team about putting together a survivorship care plan to help guide you through survivorship.

Author of Article photo

Carolyn Vachani

Fear may muscle its way back into the car now and then, riding shotgun as you face that annual mammogram or notice a worrisome symptom. That’s OK – just don’t let it take control of the steering wheel. Make use of the coping mecha­nisms you’ve picked up to help you manage your worries (such as meditation, exercise, or an enjoy­able activity like knitting or gardening) until fear is once again just a speck in the rearview mirror. And remember that your doctor is only a phone call away if you need reassurance.

Stick to a plan.
Talk with your medical team about putting together a survivorship care plan to help guide you through survivorship and address your post-treatment concerns. Whether it involves long-term hormonal therapy or annual mammograms, your survivorship care plan can help keep you on the path to wellness, so it’s important to stick with it. If side effects or other issues are interfering with your ability to follow the plan as prescribed, talk with your medical team to come up with ways to manage these issues so you can stay on track.

Make your health a priority.
Re­search has shown that certain healthy behaviors – like maintaining a healthy weight – may lower the risk of breast cancer recurrence. Use the transition from treatment to survivorship as a time to implement a healthier lifestyle. Since everyone can benefit from making healthy choices, you can recruit your whole family to join you in your quest for wellness. Make a commitment to eat healthier meals and incorporate ex­ercise into your daily routine. You may have to start slow, but a simple daily walk through the neighborhood is a great way to get started. Push yourself to go a little far­ther each week.

Pay it forward.
Many breast can­cer survivors find it helpful to use their cancer expe­rience to help others. Give your­self time to heal both physically and emotionally, and when you’re ready, consider giving back to the cancer community in some way. You could join a mentorship program to guide women who are newly diag­nosed with breast cancer, help raise funds for a cancer charity, or volunteer at your local cancer treatment center. Many survivors find that giving back to the cancer community gives mean­ing to their cancer experience and helps them move forward as a breast cancer survivor.

The transition from active treatment to breast cancer survivorship isn’t always an easy one. However, with the right tools and a survivorship care plan in place, you can embrace your survivorship with a renewed sense of purpose and a new outlook on life.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Carolyn Vachani is an oncology advanced practice nurse at the University of Pennsylvania’s Abramson Cancer Center in Philadelphia, PA. She is the managing editor of OncoLink (OncoLink.org) and creator of the OncoLife Survivorship Care Plan.

If you’re nearing the end of active treatment for breast cancer, ask your doctor for a survivorship care plan, or create one at OncoLink.org/OncoLife.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2015.