Saturday, January 22, 2011

Cancer Survivorship 101

You've completed treatment for cancer and you've been told it's time to look ahead. But what do you need to know to navigate this new part of the cancer journey?

It's rare to find a woman who hasn't been personally affected by cancer -either she knows a friend who has been diagnosed, has had a family member who has been diagnosed or has been through the fire herself. What many women might not know is tha the number of women affected by cancer is expected to rise dramatically in the near future as baby boomers reach the peak ages at which most cancers are diagnosed and as the survivor rate for most cancers continue to improve.

With these growing numbers the oncology community has initiated efforts to reach out to this significant and growing population, recognizing the needs that exist among cancer survivors and their friend and families for awareness, information, and support to sustain optimal health and happinees.  Specifically, recent efforts have focused on the needs of survivors following treatment  -- as they enter a new phase of life: survivorship -- and recognize different needs and priorities in this population facing a "new normal".


The meaning of "survivorship" and "cancer survivor"  continue to evolve as survival times and cure rates improve among patients diagnosed with cancer in the new millenium. Historically, the definition of "cancer survivor " was an individual who was "cancer free" for at least five years; now, however, the term generally refers to any individual who has been diagnosed with cancer and is still living.

Some advocacy groups who wish to honor the family members and close friends who have endured the emotional journey of a cancer diagnosis include this group in their definition of "survivor".   And some, who don't identify with the word "survivor" at all for one reason or another, might choose to refer to themselves as "thrivers" or another word with which they more closely identify.

Whatever term you feel comfortable with, know that as a survivor of cancer you have a reason to celebrate. You've made it through the fear and the confusion of a diagnosis of cancer, some have  persevered through grueling therapy and made it to the end of treatment. The unforgiving side effects, severe emotional roller-coaster rides, and life changes you have undergone have no doubt been difficult. But now the cancer has been controlled or eradicated by treatment. Now you have the opportunity to embrace life anew as a cancer survivor.


First, congratulate yourself for getting where you are today: you made it through treatment! Let yourself dream about the future. Take time to consider how your outlook on life may have changed as a result of this amazing  journey. Some cancer survivors, like me,  actually express gratitude for their diagnosis, feeling that their journey with cancer has brought about newfound meaning to their life and changed their priorities and focus, oftenfor the better.  This sense of gratitude can present a wonderful opportunity to thank your supportive care network -- family and friends-- for their compassion, commitment, help and love as they celebrate this milestone with you.

Give yourself permission to grieve. Understand that many cancer survivors experience a pendulum of emotions following the completion of therapy. If your first response at the end of treatment is not gratitude and celebration don't think that there is something wrong with you. Even though your treatment is finished and the cancer is under control, fear and anxiety of a recurrence or  the long term side effects of therapy may still weigh heavily on your psyche or may pop up when you least expect it.

Sadness, elation, depression, joy, fear, anger and other strong emotions may surface at any time following the end of your or a loved one's cancer treatment. Financial issues related to your diagnosis, a return to work or the inability to resume work, relationship and physical changes -- all may become new areas of concer in your life. At this time remember that numerous support groups exists for cancer survivors and take advantage of comfort connecting with other cancer survivors can provide.

By being able to relate with your cancer experience, this important network can answer questions and provide tips with a perspective that only comes from someone who has been through the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, facing similar challenges and concerns.  But organized support groups don't appeal to all survivors and there is no agreed upon definition of who or what can make up a support system; often people find inspiration, strength, and peace among people, situations, or ideas that surprise them. Seek out the support network -- official or otherwise-- that meets your needs.

If you are a cancer survivor, you are part of a growing community or population in the United States and around the world. Research efforts focused on long term survivorship issues continue to expand, as the oncology community has become committed to understanding increased risks for cancer survivors as well as to providing means by which these risks can be minimized or prevented.

As a survivor you can take a proactive role in this part of your cancer journey by requesting a long term care plan from your oncologist or primary care physician and asking lots of questions about the long term follow- up care you will need. By working with your healthcare team, you can help, you can help achieve your optimal health, vitality and happiness. Support groups are available for emotional, spiritual, financial and other assistance, and healthcare specialists can provide essential components to reducing or preventing post treatment complications and side effects through  their expertise.

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