You've Finished Cancer Treatments, What's Next?

by Jane Ashley

WhatNexter CindiT85 ringing the bell after finishing treatments.

Cindit85 Ringing Bell

It’s the day that you’ve looked forward to since you first learned that you had cancer. You counted down the radiation sessions. You marked off the weeks between chemotherapy sessions. You waited the allotted time, after chemo or radiation, until you could have surgery. You waited for genetic results. You waited for the pathology report. You waited to finish adjuvant chemotherapy or radiation. You marked every event in your treatment. You remember the first and last dates of your chemo. The date of your surgery is burned in your brain. You may have even gotten to “ring the bell three times.”

RING THIS BELL
Three Times Well
Its Toll to Clearly Say
MY TREATMENT’S DONE
This Course Is Run
AND I’M ON MY WAY.

And now … you’ve completed your cancer treatment. Your oncologist proclaims, “I’ll see you in three months!”

Be Prepared for Unexpected Emotions

Even your drive home that day will feel different because you will start to realize that you are transitioning into a new phase of your life.

You’re going to be happy, grateful and relieved. Don’t be surprised though if you feel a little bit “let down” and just not quite comfortable with going three months all on your own. Think about the first three months after treatment as our “cool down” period. We were enveloped in medical appointments, and now, they’ve stopped. We have to transition into survivorship.

It feels like we’ve been cut loose from the umbilical cord. We feel like the trapeze artist with no safety net. It might feel like you’re walking out into the unknown.

No Safety Net

Our regular visits to the cancer center were reassuring. But we went through all of this treatment so that we could live again. Survivorship is our brave new world.

Ways to Celebrate

The proverbial European riverboat cruise sounds grand, but many cancer patients need to regain their strength before embarking on a grandiose adventure.

Here are some of the simple ceremonies that many cancer patients use to mark their passage into survivorship:

Invite a couple of close friends and make a bonfire to burn all your old appointment cards.
• Burn those two outfits that you always wore to chemo.
• A special date night at the best restaurant in town.
• Gather your best girlfriends for an ice cream party.
• Host a potluck party and either invite your neighbors or the people who supported you the most.
• Take a long weekend trip to your favorite spot.

Celebrate

The First Year …

Your first three months will be baby steps back into life after cancer. You’ve never been in this situation, and everyone is different in how they transition into survivorship. But there are a few positive steps that everyone should make.
Exercise. After months and months of treatment, you’ve become deconditioned. You’re stiff. You have aches and pains from sitting in the chemo chair and in waiting rooms. You’re exhausted just going to the grocery store.

Your local YMCA may offer the LIVESTRONG program. It’s a 12- week program designed especially for cancer survivors to help survivors, just like you, get back into shape and enjoy an enhanced quality of life.

If there’s not a LIVESTRONG program available, ask your cancer center if there is an exercise program available. If not, call around to local gyms to see if they offer a Silver Sneakers Program or chair yoga or a gentle reintroduction to exercise program.

I have been attending a cancer wellness program for the last two years. My energy levels are good, and my flexibility has increased so that household chores and gardening are easier.

Healthier Eating. Some cancer patients lose weight during treatment, while others gain weight due to the steroids they were given. There’s no “one size fits all” recommendation for your survivorship eating. Ask your oncologist if you can get referred to a nutrition expert to help you develop healthy eating habits.

Work/Career/Retirement. A return to work signals normalcy for some survivors. But not everyone is physically and/or emotionally ready to return full-bore back to work. ASCO (American Society of Clinical Oncology) offers these insightful hints about returning back to work.

If you are at or near retirement age, you may decide to retire. Be sure to consider the financial consequences of early retirement – your benefit is reduced by approximately 30 percent if you retire at 62 and you won’t be eligible for Medicare until you are 65. If you’re on your spouse’s healthcare insurance and they are healthy enough to continue working to provide health insurance for you, that’s one situation. But if you’re single, it’s best to continue working until you’re 65.

You might decide to change careers. Cancer is a game-changer for some people. Once you realize how precious life really is, you may decide that it’s too precious to waste doing something you are just enduring. Again, there are no right or wrong answers. Some introspective thinking will help guide you toward your purpose for working.

Your new life, after cancer treatment, will develop a new rhythm. For the first year, you’ll probably be seen every three months for blood work and/or imaging. The frequency of visits and the types of testing depend on the type of cancer. It’s normal to experience anxiety while waiting for scan or bloodwork results, but surveillance for a possible recurrence is part of being a cancer survivor. My husband always reminds me when I am anxious waiting for my scan results, “I’m so glad that your oncologist is always looking after you.”

You’re a survivor, and there are standards of “survivorship care.” The NCCN (National Comprehensive Cancer Network) has developed a set of standards for oncologists to follow to help prevent recurrences, treat any side effects from treatment, assist you with any problems as a consequence of your cancer and coordinate care between your primary care physician and your other specialists.

Ive Got Your Back

You only thought that you had been cut loose when you were told to come back in three months. Your oncology team has “got your back.”

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