How can I transition from cancer patient to cancer survivor?

Shelby A. Terstriep, MD
This transition can be one that causes a lot of anxiety because you are not seeing your cancer care team as regularly. First, everyone is different. I think one of the keys is to become educated about what you need to watch for and what kinds of follow up you will need. It is important to realize that some side effects may be long term or may linger for months after therapy (ex. Fatigue). It is also a great time to make positive changes towards health like stopping smoking, improving your diet, and exercising more. Some people find support groups (in person or virtual via twitter, blogs, etc.)  and other cancer survivorship events healing. Others find volunteering helpful. Some people just need a "cancercation" --a vacation from thinking about cancer.

The modern view of "survivorship" is that it is period of time that begins on the day of diagnosis. Focusing on ways to get better also minimize the negative effects of treatment, and allow you to remain as functional as possible.

One approach uses "The LEARN System" which asks that you spend a few minutes during the first week of treatment and each week thereafter setting priorities and tasks to get better. The abbreviation LEARN reminds you of the areas of focus:

L= Living; identifying something for the week that makes a difference in your quality of life or helps others; making the time you are not at appointments meaningful, or to have some enjoyment

E= Education; learning about your treatment, managing side effects, how veteran patients have coped in your situation.

A= Activity; styling physically active within your abilities and your treatment is vital to full recovery. Ask your oncologist what activity you should do, or get a referral to a Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation specialist or Physical Therapist to guide you. Walking may be the best way to begin, but double-check what is safe and best for you.

R= Rest (& sleep); Getting rest and good sleep helps restore your energy and minimize fatigue, especially when paired with some activity. Many medications used during chemotherapy, radiation therapy or even some pain medicines affect the sleep-wake cycle, so sleeping medicines may not be the best place to start. Regular sleep routines and a quiet place are simple things to begin with. Sleep specialists list other common sense tricks.

N= Nutrition; when paired with activity and rest, good nutrition helps the body maintain your lean body mass. Gaining or losing more than 10 percent of your “ideal body weight" makes you more susceptible to infections and makes recovery harder.

For further details about The LEARN System, refer to LEARN to Live Through Cancer: What You Need to Know and Do, published by Demos Health. You can find out more information at or on Facebook

To transition from being a cancer patient to being a cancer survivor, start by learning as much as you can about taking care of yourself. To find out more, watch this video featuring palliative medicine specialist Dr. Stewart Fleishman.

Ajay K. Sahajpal, MD
Transplant Surgery
From a patient perspective, the best thing is to maintain a positive attitude and focus on remaining active/healthy and adequate nutrition.  For a patient, the uncontrollable variables are the surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.  This is the advantage of choosing a well-trained medical staff that works as a coordinated team.
All survivors needs to make the transition from the intensity of the oncology treatment environment back to their community, their family and their primary care environment. While being treated for cancer you are coddled and cared for by medical, surgical and radiation health professionals. But the new normal until this time has been a do-it-yourself situation. A survivorship care plan is an important element of having an organized approach toward the rest of your life when out of the oncology treatment environment. At Northshore University HealthSystem, all survivors exiting the treatment phase of care are eligible to receive a survivorship care plan constructed by the LIFE program.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.