By Rosie Morrison, LLMSW, Cancer Support Community Program Director
There are millions of cancer survivors throughout the world today—nearly 15.5 million in the United States alone—even though rates of cancer diagnosis are decreasing in men and staying about the same in women. This increase in survivorship is attributed to better treatments, earlier detection, and a population that is both growing and aging overall (American Cancer Society 2016). The increasing number of cancer survivors in our country means that survivorship care after treatment is more important than ever.
When treatment is complete, you’ll see your oncology team less frequently. Even though it can be a great relief to have fewer appointments, you may also feel anxious that you’re not being monitored as closely. It’s normal to experience a host of different feelings when you finish treatment. It may also take you some time to get back into a groove of exercise and proper nutrition. Finding your “new normal” is a process that won’t happen overnight, and that’s okay. Here are a few tips to help you stay emotionally and physically healthy throughout your survivorship:
- Communicate with your health care team. In between follow-up appointments, keep a list of questions you have. It may be helpful to bring a loved one with you as a note taker, and many doctors will allow you take an audio recording of your appointment (just be sure to ask them first). If you need an answer sooner, you can always call your oncologist’s office and ask to speak with a nurse.
- Complete a survivorship care plan. A survivorship care plan consolidates information about your diagnosis, treatment, and follow-up care. It helps make sense of your care as you move beyond treatment, whom to call when you have questions, a schedule for future tests and scans, and any possible side effects or late effects from your treatment. You can also share it with any health care providers you work with after treatment to help them understand your history. There are a variety of templates available for your survivorship care plan. Some of the most popular include ASCO, Livestrong, and Journey Forward. To learn more about the survivorship care planning process, view the Cancer Support Community’s recorded webinar.
- Get proper nutrition. Eating the right foods can go a long way toward improving your physical well being after treatment. Everyone’s body is different, but a few general tips include: eating plenty of fruits and vegetables; choosing healthy fats like omega-3s instead of saturated or trans fats; and choosing healthy sources of carbohydrates like whole grains and legumes (Mayo Clinic). Talk with your doctor or dietitian about maintaining a healthy weight. If you need to gain or lose weight after treatment, make sure to ask about healthy ways to do so.
- Exercise. Regular exercise is important for your physical health. However, it’s likely that you’ll experience some changes in ability and energy levels, so it’s important to ease into it. Gentle yoga, tai chi, or light aerobic activity area few good options to start with. Classes like these are available at your local Cancer Support Community or Gilda’s Club. Maybe you prefer enjoy swimming, walking with a friend, or riding your bike. If you find an exercise routine that you enjoy, it’ll be easier to stick to it.
- Manage “scanxiety.” It’s normal to feel anxious before a follow-up appointment or scan. Some people find it helpful to schedule these appointments early in the morning so that they don’t spend the day worrying. Distractions may be helpful, too: bring a loved one to wait with, read a book, listen to music, or work on a puzzle. Meditation and exercise can also help with anxiety.
- Pay attention to your emotional health. Everyone experiences difficult emotions during and after cancer. When you finish treatment, you may be joyful, anxious, sad, angry, or all of these at once. That’s okay. Feelings like these are really normal, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t significant. Talk to friends and loved ones about how you’re feeling. If you notice any major emotional changes, like feeling down or anxious all the time, sleeping all day, or feeling disconnected from your loved ones, seek help right away. Many people choose to see an individual counselor or therapist during or after treatment. Counseling may be available through your cancer center social worker, or you can seek a private practice therapist in the community. Support groups are another a healthy way to manage emotional distress. These are sometimes available at your cancer center, and there are always free, professionally-facilitated groups available at your local Cancer Support Community or Gilda’s Club.
- Reach out for help. No matter where you are in your cancer experience, it’s important to ask for help when you need it. Your Cancer Support Community or Gilda’s Club is here to help you find the resources that you need. In addition to the free programs offered on site, our staff can help you find an individual therapist, financial support resources, and more.
Do you have any tips to add for healthy cancer survivorship? Share them in the comments!