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You’re a Cancer Survivor: Now What?

You’re a Cancer Survivor: Now What?

Now that you’ve beat cancer, continue to stay on top of your health with these expert recommendations.

The National Cancer Institute says that in 2016, 15.5 million adult Americans were alive after a diagnosis of cancer. That number will hit 20.3 million by 2026. And a report from the Institutes of Medicine, “From Cancer Patient to Cancer Survivor: Lost In Transition,” found that while 62 percent of cancer survivors had their cancer diagnosed within the previous 10 years, 19 percent of female cancer survivors were diagnosed 20 or more years ago. Eight percent of male cancer survivors were diagnosed that long ago.

Clearly, there are a lot of folks dealing with the physical and emotional repercussions of cancer diagnosis, treatment and survivorship.

If that’s you or a loved one, it’s vital that the emotional toll it can take is addressed and managed, just like you manage ongoing medical care by getting regular exams/screenings to check for recurrence or another health issue.

You do that, right? Unfortunately, you don’t all tend to the ongoing medical supervision that’s so essential to head off any developing problems or recurrence. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center found that one year after surgery for breast cancer, 13 percent of the women had not had a follow-up mammogram. And after five years, only 50 percent of the women had at least one mammogram each year.

What everyone needs to understand is that challenges to your emotional well-being also challenge your physical health. Stress fuels inflammation, immune system problems and heart disease—and may make you reluctant to get those follow-up checkups.

It’s estimated that up to 58 percent of cancer survivors deal with depression and up to 23 percent experience bouts of anxiety. According to a 2014 study by researchers from Wake Forest School of Medicine, “cancer diagnosis and treatment may be accompanied by profound physical, emotional, social, occupational, and financial stressors, as well as associated increases in anxiety and depressive symptoms.”  

Many folks also contend with what the Harvard Mental Health Letter calls the Damocles syndrome—like a sword hanging over your head, you may worry about recurrence. That makes every checkup scary, and every insignificant skin bump or gurgle in your gut seem like a bad sign of something.

That’s why, it’s important to embrace the following three ways to help you make surviving a time for thriving.

  1. Upgrade your lifestyle habits. The CDC recommends you stay away from tobacco (including second- and third-hand smoke); limit alcohol intake, eat lots of fruits and vegetables, maintain a healthy weight and be physically active.
  2. Stay in touch with your docs and get all recommended follow-up and screening tests.
  3. Practice stress management techniques like meditation, guided imagery or deep breathing, etc., at least once a day and consider group or individual talk therapy. You can also check out the Sharecare app for iOS and Android for meditation streaming options.

There are patient and counselor-led groups at medical centers, such as the Cleveland Clinic’s 4th Angel Mentoring Program, an initiative begun by figure-skating champion and cancer survivor Scott Hamilton, to provide patients with free, confidential, one-on-one advice and support from a trained volunteer. Online, CancerCare.org offers support groups lead by oncological social workers, with Caring for a Loved One Who Is Post-Treatment Support Group; Post-Treatment Survivorship Support Group; and Young Adult Post-Treatment Survivorship Support Group. Some institutions, such as the Penn State Cancer Center, also recommend creative writing or art classes to help you express your feelings.

There are also adjunct activities that help ease emotional distress, such as the Cleveland Clinic’s “reflections program” (many cancer centers have similar setups) where you can experience Reiki, reflexology, oncology massage, plus facials and makeup lessons to help deal with appearance-related side effects of treatments. In addition, the Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute offers shared medical appointments for patients after breast, prostate and other cancers (covered by almost all insurance programs). In six or seven sessions, you’ll learn survivorship behaviors. Programs like this exist all throughout the US and Canada, but you have to ask about them. Take advantage, survivors!

Medically reviewed in July 2018.

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