You're a Cancer Survivor Already
Cancer survivorship doesn’t begin when you finish treatment, or when you’re cancer-free a few years down the road. Survivorship begins the moment you’re diagnosed, and it continues for the rest of your life.
As a newly diagnosed survivor, you’re probably focused on getting through your cancer treatment and coping with any side effects.
But once your cancer treatments are done, you’ll move into a new phase of survivorship. Here’s a look at what life after treatment may hold.
Your Survivorship Care Plan
At the end of treatment, your oncologist should develop your Survivorship Care Plan, go over it carefully with you and answer any questions you may have. If your doctor doesn’t offer to develop such a plan, ask for it.
At a minimum, the Survivorship Care Plan should include:
Your medical history with dates — including past health problems, how they were treated and the results
Your cancer history with dates — including cancer type; treatments and results; clinical trial information if you participated in one; treatment side effects and possible aftereffects; and contact information for the team that provided your care
A proposed schedule for follow-up cancer care, with the name and contact information of the doctor who will provide the care
Keep your Survivorship Care Plan with your important papers. Give a copy to any health professional you see in the future, including your primary care physician.
Follow-Up Cancer Care
Routine follow-up care after treatment helps you stay healthy, enhances your well-being and enables your doctor to check for any signs of your cancer coming back. These routine visits with your treating oncologist for several years after diagnosis – followed by your primary care doctor – are essential.
These checkups include a review of your medical history as well as a physical exam. They may also include imaging procedures (such as X-rays and CT scans), an endoscopy (use of a thin, lighted tube to examine the inside of the body), blood work and other lab tests.
Follow-up is important because finding any disease recurrence early is key to successful treatment. Your doctor will ask questions about any ongoing symptoms you may be having, especially those related to recurrence and long-term side effects of treatment.
These visits are also important to help prevent and detect other types of cancer, address ongoing health problems and check for physical and psychosocial effects that may develop months to years after treatment ends.
Physical Effects of Treatment
Treatment side effects may persist after treatment, then eventually disappear. However, some could be permanent, including some kinds of nerve damage.
Survivors also may experience side effects that begin months or years after treatment. These are called late effects. They may include:
Decreased ability to fight infections
Dental and jaw problems
Heart, lung, kidney, liver or digestive problems
Infertility and changes in sexual function
Memory and learning problems
Nerve problems, including tingling and numbness
Whether you’re likely to have late effects depends on your type of cancer and the treatments you received. Talk with your doctor about the late effects you may experience.
The end of treatment often provokes strong emotions among cancer survivors.
Some survivors say they emerge from treatment transformed into completely new people, loving their new lives, growing spiritually and enjoying relationships strengthened by the experience of facing cancer together.
But others may obsess about the possibility of their cancer returning, question cherished beliefs, cope with changed relationships and struggle with body image and self-esteem issues.
If you’re like many survivors, you’ll fall somewhere in the middle, experiencing both positive and negative emotions. It’s important to tell others, including your doctor, how you feel so they can understand your experience and provide you with the help you need. You also may want to join a cancer survivors group to benefit from the experience of others.
Since some things are out of your control, such as whether your cancer will return, focus on the things you can control. Doing so may help you emotionally and improve your health.
For example, if your doctor approves, try brisk walking, yoga or tai chi to reduce stress and boost fitness. If you use tobacco, try to quit. Limit alcohol use. Educate yourself about healthy eating so you can maintain a healthy weight.
You also may feel better if you turn your focus outside of yourself by helping others. Many cancer survivors give back to the cancer community by volunteering at a local cancer center or with a nonprofit cancer organization.
Additional Survivorship Issues
Finally, as you move into life after treatment, you may have difficulty getting or keeping health insurance. You may have to ask for disability accommodations if you return to work. You may have financial difficulties caused by the high cost of cancer treatment.
Many resources are available to help you cope with these and other survivorship issues. See Advocacy & Assistance Resource Groups and Financial Help for Patients & Families.
A cancer social worker also may help you locate the resources you need.
Additional Sources of Information