Advances in public awareness about the importance of cancer screenings and improvements in diagnostic and treatment methods have succeeded. Today, there are an unprecedented number of cancer survivors in the United States—approximately 14 million, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Survivorship, a once-overlooked facet of the cancer experience, brings its own set of physical and emotional challenges, many of them related to the transformation required to combat the disease. Put simply, many cancer patients find that when their bodies are rid of cancer, they’re not the same people they were prior to diagnosis, at least in certain respects.
Use these tips to help you start making sense of life as a cancer survivor.
REMEMBER, A LETDOWN IS NORMAL
“When patients are being treated for cancer, they’re in an active battle with the disease that demands their energy and focus, and medical providers, family, and friends are focusing attention on them,” says Michael Callaghan, M.D., Medical Director of the Portneuf Cancer Center. “When this fight is over, patients often tell me the silence is deafening. Undergoing chemotherapy or radiation becomes your routine, and when you don’t have to do these things anymore, reentering a ‘normal’ routine may be tough.”
JoAnn Bailey, a 41-year-old Pocatello REALTOR®, knows the feeling. JoAnn was diagnosed with cancer in her right breast a week after her 40th birthday, in March 2014. After having two lumpectomies, JoAnn visited the Portneuf Cancer Center for 16 rounds of chemotherapy from May to September, followed by six weeks of radiation from October to November 2014. She had a hysterectomy at Portneuf Medical Center after radiation ended, and then her cancer treatment was complete.
“I did kind of have a feeling of ‘What now?’” JoAnn says. “Before the diagnosis, I was an extrovert, and now I’m introverted. Being diagnosed with cancer knocks the confidence right out of you. Building it back up has been harder than expected, but I am making progress daily.”
TAKE TIME TO RE-LEARN YOUR BODY
Cancer can complicate former patients’ relationships with their bodies. JoAnn says that not knowing how or why she developed breast cancer causes anxiety. For many patients, this uncertainty is tied to fear of recurrence.
“It’s hard for people to trust their bodies after going through cancer,” Dr. Callaghan says. “It takes time to reprogram yourself not to worry that an ache or pain could be something more. If a symptom doesn’t get better, we want people to call the Cancer Center. Knowing what’s concerning and what not to worry about is part of our expertise.”
KNOW YOUR LIMITS
Cancer treatment can cause a variety of long-term side effects, including lack of energy, neuropathy, lymphedema, pain, and inability to tolerate certain foods. Many of the physical aftereffects of cancer are treatable, so speak with your physician about any symptoms you experience. For JoAnn, fatigue is a problem.
“Treatment weakened my muscles, so I’ll sometimes find myself out of breath or struggling to stand after tying my shoes,” she says. “Rebuilding strength is going to take time, and I’m grateful to be able to do what I used to do, for the most part. I just ask for a little more help around the house now.”
BUILD A SUPPORT SYSTEM
Friends and family can be excellent sources of support for cancer survivors, but loved ones may not fully understand the challenges of living beyond cancer.
“I think my husband understands what I’m going through, but my teenagers don’t quite grasp the anxiety that I have some days,” JoAnn says. “They don’t see why it’s taking me a while to fit back into life. Now, I take more time to enjoy my family, and I bought a young horse to work with to keep my mind distracted. I’m fortunate to have so many people in my life who keep me busy.”
JoAnn attends a support group at the Portneuf Cancer Center once a month to help other former patients find their way in survivorship.
“I attend the group to help inspire others,” she says. “I’m fortunate to have a big support system of my own, but I realize that not everyone has this. I want to show people who are just starting down the survivor’s path that there is life after cancer.”
The Portneuf Cancer Center hosts the H.O.P.E. (Helping Other People Endure) support group for individuals affected by cancer every Monday from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. For more information, call (208) 239-1754.
CANCER PHYSICIANS ON STAFF AT PORTNEUF MEDICAL CENTER
- Michael Callaghan, M.D., radiation oncologist
- Michael Francisco, M.D., medical oncologist
- David Ririe, M.D., medical oncologist