According to the American Cancer Society, there are more than 15.5 million cancer survivors living in the U.S. today—and the number is estimated to increase to 20 million within 10 years. The National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship defines a cancer survivor as anyone who is “living with, through and beyond a cancer diagnosis.”
Today, with improved screening efforts and increasing number of available treatments, about 2 out of every 3 people with cancer may live for at least 5 years from the time of diagnosis. Some of these cancers can now be managed like an ongoing (or chronic) illness, such as heart disease or diabetes.
Of course, living with cancer brings its own challenges. Will the cancer come back? When will I stop feeling this way? Now what?
According to the National Health Interview Survey, approximately 1 in 4 cancer survivors report a decreased quality of life due to physical problems, such as pain and fatigue, and 1 in 10 due to emotional problems, such as depression, anxiety, and fear of the cancer coming back (called recurrence), and lags in memory and concentration.
It’s not so much about “getting back to normal” as it is finding a “new normal”. That may mean making physical, emotional, social and spiritual adjustments. It may include making changes in the way you eat, the things you do, and where you find support.
Eating Well, Exercising and Talking About It
Healthy behaviors are especially important for cancer survivors. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
Regular exercise. Many studies have shown that being physically active has an impact on the quality of life of cancer survivors. It has also been shown to speed recovery time from treatment side effects and lower the risk of cancer coming back. Always check with your doctor before starting any exercise program, and be sure to understand what you can and cannot do.
A healthy weight. Extra weight is linked to an increased risk of cancer coming back. Work with your healthcare team to determine your healthy weight and discuss ways you can get there and control it.
Eating right. Eating more foods from plant sources may lower the risk of recurrence and increase survival. Include more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in your diet. Try to limit the amount of red meat (opt for lean cuts or smaller portions) and processed meats, such as bacon, sausage, lunch meats and hot dogs.
Find support. Social support, whether it’s from family or friends or from a group or individual therapy, can help anxiety, stress, depression, and quality of life. Many cancer treatment centers offer programs that can help you deal with the emotional and mental stress.
Having a Survivorship Care Plan
Survivorship care plans can help survivors feel more informed and make healthier diet and exercise choices. A survivorship care plan is a detailed record of a patient’s cancer history and recommendations for follow-up care.
The treatment summary should contain the following:
Details of cancer diagnosis, including date, type of cancer, location, stage;
Treatments received, including specific drugs given, number of treatment cycles completed, dosages;
Additional treatments, such as radiation (type, dose, site);
Surgeries done (name of procedure, date performed);
Names of healthcare providers and location of treatment of facility.
The follow-up plan should be personalized to your specific needs, and may include the following:
A schedule of follow-up medical visits, test and cancer screenings, as well as the names and location of the healthcare providers who will perform them;
Signs and symptoms you should look for;
What you should do to manage treatment-related problems;
Potential long-term effects of treatments received;
Healthy behaviors you can do for a healthy recovery;
Community and support resources.
Creating your care plan with your healthcare team is an important first step, but along the way be sure to share it with your family, caregivers, and your healthcare provider, so they can be your partners in making and following your plan for the future.