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What Comes Next After Cancer

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  • Written By: Frederick Health

1956-0265 FH SM July After Cancer AR

When your cancer treatment ends, you start a new chapter in your life as a survivor. During treatment, many patients feel like their life was put on hold, but after it’s all done, it can be challenging to return to daily life. Overcoming a battle with cancer is an incredible relief and you may ready to move forward with life, putting cancer behind you. Or, perhaps you may feel like cancer is always a part of you, able to return at any moment. You might also be worried about adjusting to life after treatment and the changes that come with it.

Cancer patients go through emotional and bodily changes throughout their treatments, and these changes often last well after treatment has ended. Navigating your new normal after a long journey with cancer is an important process, and everyone follows their own timeline. Every cancer journey is different, but caring for your mind, body, and spirit after treatment is an important step in living a long, fulfilling life after cancer treatment.

“Experiencing cancer changes everyone’s perspective on life and living,” says Patrick Mansky, MD and Medical Director at Frederick Health. “You might need to have more frequent medical check-ups, start a new diet, live your relationships in a new way, adjust your work-life balance…But you don’t have to do it alone—Frederick Health Oncology specialists are here to help you navigate your journey after cancer treatment.”

What is “Normal?”

Cancer survivors often find that life after treatment isn’t so much about getting back to the way things were before their diagnosis, but discovering what is normal for you now. Depending on your doctor’s advice, you might have to make temporary or permanent changes to your diet, you may have to take certain medications, you may have to modify certain activities to fit your abilities, and you’ll need to attend follow-up appointments.

After your treatment is done, you may find that you aren’t able to do some of the things you did before you were diagnosed. Perhaps you have less energy, you feel anxious or depressed, or you have pain. It’s important to address these common problems with your doctor, who can help you manage them.

Get Follow-up Care

After finishing treatment, you’ll receive a follow-up care plan from your doctor. In general, a follow-up care plan means that you continue seeing a doctor for regular medical checkups. While follow-up care is different for everyone, it’s typical for survivors to return to the doctor every three to four months during the first few years after treatment.

During a follow-up visit, the doctor will review your medical history and give a physical exam to look for side effects of treatment and determine if cancer has returned or spread. They may also recommend complementary integrative services like guided meditation, yoga, Qi Gong, and acupuncture—which support conventional oncology treatment at Frederick Health.

Be sure to ask your oncologist for a written summary of your treatment, and give each new doctor you visit a copy of this information. The summary should include information like:

  • Diagnosis date
  • Cancer type and stage
  • Pathology reports
  • Dates and locations of specific treatments like surgeries, radiation, chemotherapy
  • Contact information of doctors involved in your treatment
  • Any problems during treatment
  • List of signs to watch for and potential long-term effects from treatment
  • Information about additional care such as special medicines, emotional support, supplements, etc.

Always tell any new doctor about your history of cancer.

Make Changes

To live your healthiest life post-cancer, there are a few lifestyle changes you may want to consider making. Opting for healthy choices can not only reduce the risk of other illnesses and diseases, but also can improve your physical and mental health.

Want to live your healthiest life?

  • Quit smoking. Smoking can increase chances of cancer returning, especially certain types like lung cancer.
  • Cut back on alcohol. Drinking alcohol increases your risk of certain types of cancer.
  • Eat smart. First, ask your doctor about any special dietary restrictions you might have. Opt for a plant-based diet and choose low-fat, low-sodium foods.
  • Stay active. Studies suggest that staying active after cancer can help reduce the risk of recurrence and can lead to a longer life. Moderate exercises such as walking, biking, and swimming for at least half an hour each day can improve your mood, reduce anxiety and depression, and reduce fatigue, nausea, pain, and diarrhea.

When it comes to physical activity, it’s important to start slow and listen to your body. Work with your doctor or a physical therapist as needed—they can help you modify your exercises to be appropriate for your condition. Even if you need to stay in bed or sit in a chair, stretching and moving your arms and legs throughout the day can help you stay flexible, relieve tension, and help you feel better in general.

Managing Physical Changes

Even after treatment ends, you may still be coping with its effects. Each patient is different, but some of the most common post-treatment problems survivors report are memory changes, fatigue, neuropathy, and changes in weight or eating habits.

One in four cancer patients reported memory and attention problems after chemotherapy, sometimes known as “chemobrain.” Also described as “brain fog,” survivors who experience this can have trouble paying attention, remembering new things, or finding words. Talk to your doctor if you are having memory or thinking problems; they might refer you to a neuropsychologist. Also talk to your doctor if you think a medication could be causing this problem, or if you think you have anxiety or depression. To improve memory and concentration, consider writing lists, setting up reminders in your phone, and repeat what you want to remember.

Feeling fatigued is one of the most common complaints during the first year of recovery. It can be caused by cancer therapy, anemia, a weak immune system, depression, and more. Your doctor can help you determine the cause of your fatigue and give you appropriate treatment to help. To cope with fatigue, consider taking short naps or breaks between activities, allow others to help you, and set a consistent sleep schedule. Also, talk to your doctor about participating in mindfulness and meditation through Frederick Health's integrative services.

Chemo and surgery can damage your nerves, causing pain or numbness in your hands and feet. When discussing pain with your doctor, describe how the pain affects your daily life, be specific of what the pain feels like and where it is, and use numbers from 0-10 to describe your pain level. Your doctor may recommend medicine, physical therapy, nerve blocks, acupuncture, and other remedies to reduce pain.

Take Care

Your journey after treatment can be exciting, daunting, and filled with questions. While every survivor’s recovery process is different, there are ways to take care of yourself to ensure a healthy, happy life after your treatment ends.

  • Attend a support group. Talking to others who have had similar experiences can be reassuring, eye-opening, and cathartic. FRHS has multiple cancer support groups available to you and your loved ones.
  • Laugh. Even in stressful times, laughter can help you relax and improve your mood. Watch funny movies or shows, ask friends to send you funny cards or memes, and don’t hesitate to find humor in daily life.
  • Watch for depression and anxiety. Feeling angry, sad, or tense after your treatment is normal, but if these painful feelings get in the way of your daily life, you should talk to your doctor. Treatment may include seeing a therapist who specializes in cancer patients, medication to help regulate your mood, or alternative therapies like mindfulness, tai chi, and yoga.

Additionally, Frederick Health’s Integrative Services at the James M Stockman Cancer Institute are a great way to manage treatment-related side effects, improve your physical and mental health, reduce stress and anxiety, support your recovery process, and improve your overall quality of life. These services provided by Frederick Health’s knowledgeable practitioners include:

  • Mindfulness and meditation. Evidence shows that patients who practice mindfulness through meditation are in a better emotional state when receiving and recovering from cancer treatment.
  • Chinese medicine, acupuncture, and Five Elements acupuncture. Studies have shown acupuncture can help with nausea, vomiting, fatigue, hot flashes, neuropathy, anxiety, depression, and sleep issues.
  • Massage. Getting a massage from a licensed therapist can help relieve edema, or swelling that happens when fluid builds up in parts of the body.
  • Yoga and tai chi. Practicing yoga and tai chi with an experienced teacher can help patients overcome fatigue and reduce stress.

While the post-treatment recovery process can be long, remember you are not alone. Turn to trusted doctors and nurses, as well as family and friends, to help guide you through your life as a cancer survivor.