Embracing Survivorship

Embracing Survivorship

How to Make the Most of Life after Cancer Treatment

by Jolene Rowe, LCSW, OSW-C

It may surprise you to know that there are now 15.5 million cancer survivors in this country. Needless to say, much has changed for cancer survivors in recent years. We have increasing knowledge about late and long-term effects of both cancer and its treatment. We even know more about how to prevent cancer recurrences and extend survivorship after treatment ends. 

Although this is all promising news, you may find it to be of little comfort as you’re staring down the myriad challenges of cancer survivorship, feeling isolated, dealing with physical and cognitive changes, dreading follow-up appointments, or worrying about cancer recurrence with every ache and pain. You may be asking yourself, “What do all these changes mean for me? And how do they help me resume a normal life?

While living longer after cancer is a reality for many survivors, living well continues to present some challenges. As the period of survivorship has extended, it has also become more complex, and in some ways, more stressful. We know that the cancer experience doesn’t end when the treatment does. Cancer-related side effects can show up late and last throughout life. And even if you never experience these late effects, just knowing that they may occur can add to existing anxiety. 

Now more than ever, you deserve to know what to expect as you move forward after cancer. Be assertive in getting information and guidance from medical providers, and enlist their help in creating a cancer survivorship care plan. Insist on good communication between your oncologist and your other physicians to ensure that if problems do arise, you have the benefit of someone who understands the late and long-term effects of cancer. 

We know that the cancer experience doesn’t end when the treatment does.

Stay informed about what’s new in cancer research and about ways to extend your cancer-free survivorship. Be vigilant about physical signs and symptoms, as well as cognitive and psychological changes, but try not to remain stuck in your identity as a cancer patient. In other words, resume your normal life, but don’t forget that you are a cancer survivor. 

Right now, you’re probably thinking that this is easier said than done. You are not the same person you were – physically, emotionally, cognitively, spiritually – when you began this journey. You may feel fearful, anxious, depressed, or simply unmoored. This is normal. Survivorship is a period of transition. And transitions often require emotional adjustments. Be patient with yourself as you adjust to these changes. 

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Be patient, but also proactive. Seek out ways to bolster your physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Consider mindfulness, yoga, journaling, prayer, or other spiritual practices, as well as any pursuits that bring you enjoyment. Also, resume (or begin) some type of physical activity. The evidence supporting the benefits of exercise for cancer survivors’ physical, mental, and emotional health only continues to grow. 

Emotional support is essential. You have likely identified those in your life who are good listeners and are able to help you feel better. Don’t feel disappointed if certain friends or family members aren’t exactly helpful during your recovery. Often, loved ones are not the best sources of support because they haven’t been in your shoes and don’t know how to give you what you need. For this reason, peer support can be invaluable. Connecting with other cancer survivors is a great way to give and receive encouragement and support. Your cancer care team can recommend local support groups or peer programs, or you can find peer support online though organizations like Imerman Angels (ImermanAngels.org). 

If you find that you are unable to enjoy life in a meaningful way for a prolonged amount of time, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. It’s common for cancer survivors to experience depression, and many people need a little extra help in adjusting to life after cancer. A mental health counselor can help you get back on track and enjoying life again. 

The cancer survivorship movement is growing. And more doctors are recognizing the need to improve the care we give survivors once treatment is over. While not everyone will become a long-term survivor, the number of people who do is increasing with every new medical advancement. If this is your reality, you may find it helpful to think of survivorship as a lifelong enterprise in which you, your illness, your treatment, and your life beyond cancer coexist with the goal of finding balance, acceptance, and hope.

Jolene Rowe

Jolene Rowe is the manager of Inpatient Social Work in the Department of Patient and Family Services at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, FL. She supervises social workers in various disease site programs, oversees graduate student training, and develops and coordinates psycho-educational and therapeutic programs for patients and families.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2017.