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Approaching the End of Active Treatment

What's Next?

by Lidia Schapira, MD

Wellness image

Approaching the end of “active” cancer treatment is typically viewed with both relief and worry. Family members and friends often expect survivors to snap back into pre-cancer mode, but rarely do survivors find the energy or drive to do so. In fact, many face the transition to “survivorship” with mixed emotions.

The first step toward successfully adapting to your new normal is to accept both the physical and emotional changes that resulted from cancer treatment. This takes patience and time. Finding ways to reduce stress and promote physical wellness can help you begin the path to recovery. There is no single prescription that covers the gamut of problems caused by cancer, but here are a few suggestions that may work for you:

♦ Get physically fit. Start or resume a gradual exercise program that feels doable to you. Set simple goals that you feel able to accomplish, and take them a week at a time. If you’ve never exercised before, ask your doctor or nurse to help you find a cancer rehabilitation or fitness program in your area. Sometimes all it takes is to get going. A slow walk in the neighborhood twice daily for 10 minutes and a gentle stretching routine can lead to miles of trail walking several months later.

The first step toward successfully adapting to your new normal is to accept both the physical and emotional changes that resulted from cancer treatment.

Author of Article photo

Dr. Lidia Schapira

♦ Get some fresh air. Taking a walk outside is good for body and soul. If you have the energy, consider planting a garden or taking walks on a regular basis.

♦ Pay attention to your diet. Eating is one of life’s great joys. Tasting food normally again after chemotherapy or after radiation to the throat may take time. Experiment with new fruits and vegetables, try new flavors and cooking styles, and aim to reach and stay at your ideal body weight.

♦ Have some fun and find time for activities that restore your sense of peace. Some pray, some read, and others dream of a round of golf. Whether it’s playing with children, watching a film, or just spending time with friends – cancer teaches you that there is no reason to postpone any of the activities that give life meaning and bring you joy.

♦ Minimize stress. Take a step at a time in trying to get back to your precancer life, re-examine your goals, and take the opportunity to make some of those changes you may have contemplated for years but never got around to implementing.

The end of active treatment is often a time for reflection. Some survivors find they had questions about their cancer and treatment that they never asked. Feeling properly informed is important. If you still have questions, this is a good time to alert your healthcare team and schedule the necessary time to air your concerns and ask more questions.

The transition to healthy survivorship is not always easy. Some survivors are burdened by intrusive thoughts and fears of recurrence that interfere with their enjoyment of life or ability to live in the present. Some experience fatigue for more than a year, trouble sleeping, or experience difficulty finding the motivation to pursue activities they once enjoyed. Time helps diminish many of these symptoms but not all of them. A support group can offer companionship and validation of the difficulties caused by cancer. Individual therapy with a trained mental health professional can also be beneficial.

Each individual’s experience of cancer is unique. Just as it is fundamental to assemble the right team to treat the cancer after diagnosis, you also need to feel supported and have access to all the information and resources you need as you embark on your journey to your new normal. Remember that professional caregivers, as well as friends and other members of the community, are there to help provide guidance, support, and care.

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Dr. Lidia Schapira is a medical oncologist at the Gillette Center for Breast Oncology at the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center in Boston. She specializes in the care of women with breast cancer. Her research focuses on psychosocial aspects of cancer care and communication.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2012.