Question: What concerns do cancer survivors commonly face after treatment is done and the cancer is gone?
Answer: Cancer takes its toll on millions of Americans every year, whether they or a loved one has been diagnosed with a form of the disease. The good news is that more people are surviving cancer than in decades past, according to the National Cancer Institute. In fact, the American Cancer Society estimates that there are close to 14 million survivors of invasive cancers currently living in the US.
One might expect that beating cancer would bring incredible relief to those who have been affected – and it typically does. Yet life after cancer can be quite difficult – physically, emotionally, professionally, and socially. As physicians, we frequently see patients who live in considerable fear that their cancer will return or who express concern that their social and familial relationships have changed now that they are “better”. Cancer is life-changing, and after enduring a critical illness, it can be difficult for survivors to reestablish their lives. As a result, it’s important for physicians and providers to recognize and be responsive to the fact that follow-up visits, even for “cured” patients, can be as frightening and emotionally taxing as the first visit.
While these concerns will not disappear overnight, they can be eased with the setting of expectations, close follow-up care, and ongoing social support. After successful treatment, it’s important that patients, and family members, know what to expect going forward, as well as what signs and symptoms to pay attention to. Follow-up care and screening are also essential. By knowing what to look for and receiving ongoing care from their provider, patients increase the chances of early detection, should the cancer return. And early detection, along with an aggressive treatment plan, increases survival rates.
The value of a close network of supportive family and friends cannot be overstated when coping with life during or after cancer. Additionally, most cancer centers offer a number of resources to patients, including survivor support groups, social workers, and counselors. Participating in activities or organizations that raise cancer awareness or money for research can also be empowering for patients and help them reclaim their lives.