Family Health: Cancer survivors face physical, mental changes

In the United States today, two out of every three people with cancer will live at least five years after their diagnosis. That adds up to nearly 12 million cancer survivors, with close to 18,000 in Montana.

Surviving cancer can mean finishing treatments, and that’s a huge achievement. But today’s definition of a cancer survivor has expanded to include everyone diagnosed with this disease and their family members as well. These are the people who live with cancer, its treatments and issues that continue for the rest of their lives.

For many people, the first of these issues is the psychological burden that comes with the cancer diagnosis. According to the American Cancer Society, it’s natural for patients and families to feel depression, anxiety and fear as cancer becomes part of their lives. These feelings can continue after treatment ends, with worries about cancer returning or how to adjust to their “new normal.”

New normal refers to a cancer survivor’s physical and emotional state after cancer treatment. For example, many cancer survivors have had surgery or treatments that changed their bodies. It takes time to get used to how that looks and feels. Relationships with family and friends may also have changed and need a chance to find new footing.

The ACS reports that cancer survivors also may deal with lingering effects of their disease or treatments, such as:

  • Pain.
  • Fatigue.
  • Trouble with memory or concentration (known as “chemo brain”).
  • Skin changes from radiation therapy.
  • Numbness and tingling in hands or feet.
  • Muscle weakness.
  • Lymphedema (swelling in the arms or legs).
  • Changes in sexual feelings or function.

These conditions may improve over time. And there are techniques and treatments that can help. For example, physical therapy helps many cancer survivors deal with muscle weakness, pain and other problems. Healthy lifestyle habits like eating nutritious foods and being active also help.

These recommendations are often part of a follow-up care plan that cancer survivors receive when their treatment ends. The care plan also includes a schedule for ongoing check-ups with their physician, usually every three to four months for the first few years and less frequently after that.

Cancer survivors may also stay in touch with other members of their care team, such as social workers or nurse navigators. At Community Medical Center, a nurse navigator follows breast cancer patients from diagnosis on. Nurse navigators counsel cancer survivors during and after treatments about managing side effects and other problems. They also act as patient advocates and can help set up appointments with physicians, counselors or other caregivers.

For many cancer survivors, the end of treatment marks a time to reassess their lives and make positive changes. Along with working toward a healthier lifestyle, many people say that cancer led them to appreciate life and to take time to enjoy their friends, family and the activities they love.

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Shawn Lake writes for the Community Cancer Care Center at Community Medical Center.