Post-Treatment: Forging a New Path Forward
Survivorship will bring about change in many areas of your life. You may have a more open schedule because you won’t have as many medical appointments as you once did. You may feel ready to go back to work or school. You may be more independent, no longer needing the help of a caregiver. You may even feel ready to take on a caregiving role for your children, parents or other loved ones. Life will be different, and it can be very positive with the right approach.
Think about where you are in your life right now, and imagine where you’d like to be. It’s like having a clean slate. There is no better time than now to figure out how you want to move forward.
Communicate Openly and Honestly
It’s important to keep the lines of communication open with your doctor. All the detailed information you share with your doctor can be vital to monitoring you for other cancers and to managing any long-term side effects.
Be sure to tell your doctor how you’re feeling physically, mentally and emotionally, and include the following:
- New or ongoing pain that isn’t adequately relieved
- New or ongoing physical symptoms, including bladder/bowel control; deep fatigue or insomnia; sexual dysfunction or lack of desire; mobility issues; signs of infection; tingling or numbness; fluid buildup; or changes in appetite, sense of taste, vision or hearing
- Cognitive (thinking-related) symptoms, such as difficulties with memory, concentration, processing information, word-finding or completing tasks (often called chemo brain)
- Depression, anxiety, fear, anger, grief, hopelessness, emotional numbness, feeling overwhelmed or other concerns
- New medications, over-the-counter remedies, vitamins, supplements or herbs
- Visits to the emergency room, urgent care or other doctors, even if not cancer-related
Make Smart Lifestyle Decisions
You are mostly in control of the choices you make about nutrition and exercise. Wise choices will help you live the healthiest life possible. Eating right and exercising offer multiple benefits and help you build a solid foundation for going forward with life. It may be helpful to consider both as treatments your body needs to continue to be well.
Healthy eating after your treatment ends may help reduce the risk of cancer recurrence or secondary cancers. It also assists you with improving other health conditions you may have, such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes, which have been linked to cancer.
Maintaining a healthy weight is important for survivors, especially if treatment caused you to lose or gain weight. Whether you are trying to lose, gain or maintain, make sure to eat the essential nutrients, including carbohydrates, fats and protein.
You might consider nutritional counseling with a registered dietitian. Together, you can create a nutrition plan and discuss your concerns. If there isn’t a dietitian on your medical team, ask your doctor or nurse navigator for a referral.
Being physically active is an important lifestyle choice for survivors. After treatment ends, consult your doctor, who may suggest specific exercises, intensity levels and duration of activities, all based on your unique circumstances.
Don’t fear that you will only get the benefits of exercise if you run a marathon. Even a 10-minute daily walk can energize you and offer multiple health benefits, such as reducing anxiety, depression and fatigue. Physical activity is also a great way to reduce stress, which is important to your overall health. And, it’s a natural way to boost your mood, offering drug-free relief for many of the emotional side effects of cancer and its treatment.
Return to Work or School
Did you have to reduce your workload or take a leave of absence from work or school to accommodate treatment? If so, you might consider going back. But before simply resuming the same role and schedule as before, think about the following:
- You may have long-term effects that might require your employer to make temporary adjustments, such as a flexible schedule, reduced hours, a redesigned work station, the ability to work from home and/or altered responsibilities. Work with your supervisor to evaluate your workload or reassign duties as needed.
- You may choose to find a new employer or a different line of work from what you had before treatment began. You may feel self-conscious about why you’re making a change, but your reasons are your own and what you share is up to you. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits current and future employers from asking about your medical history.
- Before going back to school, visit the school before returning, especially if you have physical limitations that may make it difficult to navigate the campus. Maintain open communication with the school administration and request additional resources, such as emotional and social support, to help transition between treatment and school. Be sure to address learning or classroom difficulties early.
Give Back to the Cancer Community
“Giving back” can happen in many ways, and it doesn’t have to take a lot of effort. Sometimes it is as simple as sharing your experience. Hearing how someone else navigated cancer can provide hope and help to another person, and many patients depend on the survivor community to educate, support and engage them before, during and after treatment.
Consider volunteering with a cancer support group to talk with other survivors in person, on the phone or online. Ask family members, friends and others in your community network whether they know of an individual or organization that could benefit from your help. Or call local hospitals, cancer centers or advocacy groups and ask how you can get involved. Some survivors find an organization related to their cancer to participate in fundraising events.
If you’re interested in sharing with other readers of Patient Resource cancer guides, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Examine Your Financial Situation
Before you were diagnosed with cancer, you may have had plans for retirement or a strategy for it. However, treatment expenses and time off work may have caused you to dip into or deplete your retirement funds. You may decide to go back to work either full time or part time to rebuild your savings. If you do, consider some changes when it is time to select your health insurance coverage for the next calendar year. You will likely have more doctor’s visits and more tests (and possibly more prescriptions) than you did before your diagnosis of cancer. Read the fine print and determine if you want to choose a different coverage plan that may be a higher premium each month but covers more services and has a lower copayment and deductible.
Cancer-related costs can be confusing, and you don’t have to figure them out on your own. The financial coordinators at your hospital can work with you to address your financial concerns and determine if you qualify for government or other types of assistance. Social workers, advocates, financial counselors and patient navigators at your medical facility can also refer you to organizations and charities that may be able to help.
Reframe Your Life’s Goals
You may have different priorities than you had before your cancer diagnosis. Your life goals may have changed or need to be redefined. You may reconsider the work you do and what you want out of life. There may be things you’ve always wanted to try or places you want to see.
You may decide to include your loved ones in this conversation, but remember, these are your life goals, so be true to what is in your heart. Use these strategies to help form your new perspective on your future:
- Write in a journal
- Speak with a counselor, life coach or spiritual leader
- Join a support group for cancer survivors
Reclaim Your Sexual Health
A cancer diagnosis and its treatment can change many aspects of your sexual health. You may face post-treatment sexual difficulties, such as a decreased sex drive, the inability to achieve or maintain arousal, pain during intercourse, the delay or absence of orgasm or feeling less desirable. Talking about these types of changes with your doctor or nurse is crucial and you should not be embarrassed to bring them up. Your sexual health is a vital part of life.
Many factors can cause these difficulties, and your doctor may look for physical factors that contribute to them, such as high blood pressure or diabetes. Sometimes controlling these can correct the problem.
A possible physical sexual problem among male cancer survivors is erectile dysfunction (ED), which is the inability to get and/or maintain an erection. Treatment for ED often combines medication with physical and psychological elements.
Sexual problems that may affect female survivors include vaginal dryness and discomfort, as well as pain during intercourse. Correcting these problems can help boost sex drive, arousal and the ability to reach orgasm. Remedies include vaginal dilators, low-dose vaginal estrogen, lubricants, moisturizers and pelvic floor physical therapy.
Lastly, share your concerns with your partner and allow your partner to do the same. Do your best to set aside one-on-one time with each other to rediscover and strengthen the intimacy in your relationship. Explore ways to be intimate other than intercourse. Depending on your situation, consider a discussion with a professional counselor or therapist.
- Ask for a referral to a financial counselor to determine if you are eligible for assistance.
- Consider sharing your experience with other survivors. It can be healing for them as well as for you.
- Don’t be afraid to bring up sexual health issues with your doctor. Treatments and therapies are available to help with this important part of your life.