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Survivorship: Life After Cancer

Cancer is a disease of aging: The older you get, the more likely you are to have some form of cancer. For a long time, it was considered not only a serious diagnosis, but a deadly one. However, over the past few decades, the rates of those who die as a result of cancer have dropped significantly. Survival statistics are extraordinarily better, shifting from acute patient hospitalization to a chronic outpatient disease.

In many ways, it is better to get cancer now than it was 30 years ago.

Survivorship focuses on both the health and life of a person who has cancer from the time they are treated and for the rest of their life, according to the National Cancer Institute. It can include any physical, psychosocial and/or economic issue a person has with their cancer experience. 

Ring My Bell

In terms of oncology care, you’re a cancer survivor from the first day you are diagnosed. Some may think it starts when a person “rings the bell” at the hospital, indicating they have completed their chemotherapy or that treatment is over. But even if you are in the middle of that process, you’re considered a cancer survivor. 

Many more people are surviving cancer now than once did, prompting a different life perspective. Millions wonder after they get sick — even if they have gone into remission — what if their cancer comes back? It’s an idea that can cause a constant state of anxiety. It can affect your mood and how you feel too.

Programs such as Return to Wellness can assist cancer survivors in becoming accustomed to their regular lives again, helping them find their new normal after this life-changing experience. A lot of emotional baggage is attached to almost dying that needs to be reckoned with. 

Think of it this way: You’ve been at war with your own body, and seen family and friendships change. Some have stepped up that you never expected to, while others may have abandoned you. You have to come to terms with that. It’s not easy.

An Age Old Disease

Part of survivorship can mean paying closer attention to what you eat, as well as your tobacco and/or alcohol use and your exercise routine. 

Refrain from smoking. It is so bad for your health, but also highly correlated with cancer and recurrence. That goes for a lot of other bad habits we struggle with. Drinking alcohol is bad for you. Not exercising is bad for you. And if you understand the dangers, you will likely understand it’s difficult to lead a healthy life.

Cancer survivors play by a different sent of rules: You need to pay even closer attention to what the average adult should or should not be doing. When you have an added vulnerability in your system, you need to be more vigilant. Play an active role in your health to avoid repeating the experience.

Good habits are difficult to adhere to. Start with learning healthier ways to manage your stress (that do not include alcohol and smoking). Get your kids to help. Build resiliency. Bounce back from stress without causing more issues by not eating so much, by not eating the wrong foods and by getting on your feet and walking.

Having a cancer experience can reinforce your understanding of why it’s so important  to follow up on your regular doctor appointments. Don’t skip out on your Pap tests. Follow up with your oncologist. Take responsibility. See what programs are offered for those who have your cancer type and make your health a priority. 

Pay Close Attention

Breast cancer survivors will want to be careful about what might aggravate their condition, including what they eat. Those with skin cancer should practice sun safety and commit to applying sunscreen daily (even on cloudy days). The sun is a carcinogen — remember that.

Keep a health diary and track any symptoms as they surface. Have a list to share with your physician. That’s a huge help. Writing down your symptoms means you’re less likely to forget them later. By doing so, you give doctors a chance to evaluate your recurrence. The earlier they can address any evidence of that, the longer you may live.

It’s important to stay alert, but not highly anxious. There’s a fine line between healthy vigilance and hypervigilance — just be smart about it. Understand you are your own best advocate. We try to empower you to take responsibility for your own health. That way, you’re compelled to make better decisions. You are likely to feel better about yourself and live with a lower level of depression. 

Make Sure You’re Connected

We are social creatures. Reaching out for help post-treatment can be something special for all involved. A lot of support groups aren’t discovered until after cancer treatment. I have the honor of watching cancer survivors come together and create close-knit friendships, and it is beautiful to witness. It’s amazing to see how many friendships form in these support groups, but it’s not entirely surprising.

One reason is that it’s a relief to know you were not the only one to go through this experience. When you understand you are not alone, that’s big. Besides, there’s far too much loneliness in the world.

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