From the very start, dealing with cancer can feel like riding a rollercoaster with many twists, turns and ups and downs. So, when the ride finally comes to a stop, you may not know what to do. You’ve put so much effort into bracing yourself. Now are you supposed to just…relax?
Getting the news that you’re cancer-free is a magnificent and surreal moment. In the midst of your celebration, you will likely have a few questions. To answer a few of the most common questions, we spoke with Sandra Olvera, a family nurse practitioner working in integrative oncology and cancer survivorship at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center at Banner Gateway Medical Center in Gilbert, Arizona.
What does “cancer-free” mean?
“Cancer-free” is a HUGE milestone. You should take a deep breath and celebrate with your friends and family. But the term can be easily misunderstood. If you’ve been told that you are cancer-free, Olvera said that this typically means that you have “no evidence of disease.” We are still learning about cancer every day, so terms like “cure” are hard to find. Your doctor may still recommend follow-up care, such as treatments or scans, to make sure you stay healthy following this amazing news.
How can I STAY cancer-free?
Olvera remarked that certain cancers carry a higher likelihood of recurrence. For example, ovarian cancers recur in as many as 85% of cases. Whereas thanks to early detection and advancements in treatments, breast cancer recurrence can be as low as 5%. Olvera listed diet, exercise, sleep and stress management as important ways to lower your risk of recurrence.
- Diet: A plant-based diet is recommended. Your meals should be rich in colorful vegetables and fruits, avoiding too many processed foods, artificial sweeteners or sugar.
- Exercise: Aim for 30 to 60 minutes of exercise per day. Participating in a physical activity you enjoy will help you keep up the habit long term. It is important, however, to check with your doctor before starting any new exercise routine.
- Sleep: Try to get 7 to 8 hours of restful sleep each night. Avoid use of electronics before bed. Limit caffeine and alcohol, which are considered sleep disruptors.
- Stress management: Keeping stress to a minimum is important in maintaining a healthy immune system. Reduce stress with techniques such as yoga, massage, music, meditation, and positive thinking. Risky behaviors such as cigarette smoking, drug use and drinking too much alcohol should be avoided.
What resources are available to survivors?
Even for survivors, there is still important work to be done. In addition to prescribed follow-up appointments, regular screenings or treatments your physician may recommend, supportive care is available for after a cancer-free diagnosis. Survivors can check with their local cancer center for a survivorship program to help guide them in their post-cancer care. Clinical psychologists are available to consult with patients who are dealing with issues affecting their daily life such as survivors’ guilt, anxiety and depression. Cancer survivors can also seek help from online resources through the American Cancer Society, the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship, and the Livestrong program.
You’ve achieved something extraordinary. Being cancer-free provides fresh perspective and hope for all survivors and their families.
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