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Life After Cancer
This Special Health Report is designed to guide you through the next stage of your cancer journey. It will walk you through many of the issues you’ll face in the upcoming months and years—the long-term and late effects of your cancer and treatment; the potential for a recurrence or new cancer; the emotional, occupational, and financial issues you’ll potentially face; and the implications for your family and friends. You’ll learn how to readjust to the life you may have put on hold during your treatment, transitioning back to your full work and home life. And you’ll learn ways to maintain your health to prevent new problems, including cancer, from taking hold again.
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If you are interested this report, chances are you are among the 15.5 million people in the United
States who currently consider themselves cancer survivors. Or you are the spouse, child, parent,
or concerned friend of someone who is a cancer survivor.
“Survivor” is a powerful word. As defined by some medical groups, it refers to anyone who has
ever been diagnosed with cancer, from the earliest stages of treatment through the final days of
hospice care—and applies to their loved ones and caregivers as well. Others define it more narrowly, as we do in this report. It means that you have survived the first active phase of treatmentand have been able to resume your life. Perhaps treatment has slowed or stopped your cancergrowth, and you need only monitoring for the time being. Or perhaps you’ve reached a plateauthat you can maintain with long-term treatment. Or maybe you have conquered your disease andreceived a clean bill of health from your doctor. All of these meet the definition.
No matter where you are in your cancer journey, you have undoubtedly faced some of the most
difficult challenges you’ve ever experienced. You’ve had to come to terms with the frightening
reality of your own mortality. You’ve undergone treatments that took a great toll on your emotional
and physical well-being. And you likely had to step away—at least temporarily—from
your day-to-day life to deal with this imminent threat.
Now that you are a survivor, your challenges have shifted, but they have not disappeared. As
you enter this next phase of your journey, you will encounter more obstacles ahead. The same
treatments that likely saved your life might have left residual effects that could threaten your
health again one day. Your cancer may have left physical—and emotional—scars that have yet
to heal. And your experience as a cancer patient may have put strain on your relationships that
will require time and effort to fix.
This Special Health Report is designed to guide you through the next stage of your cancer
journey. It will walk you through many of the issues you’ll face in the upcoming months and
years—the long-term and late effects of your cancer and treatment; the potential for a recurrence
or new cancer; the emotional, occupational, and financial issues you’ll potentially face; and the implications for your family and friends. You’ll learn how to readjust to the life you may have put on
hold during your treatment, transitioning back to your full work and home life. And you’ll learn
ways to maintain your health to prevent new problems, including cancer, from taking hold again.
Prepared by the editors of Harvard Health Publishing in consultation with Ann Partridge, MD, MPH Director, Adult Survivorship Program, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School. 49 pages. (2017)
- What does it mean to be a cancer survivor?
- Long-term and late effects of treatment
- Cardiovascular disease
- Lung disease
- Infertility, early menopause, and sexual issues
- Sleep problems
- Diabetes and other endocrine issues
- Nerve damage (neuropathy)
- Hearing loss
- Bladder and urinary issues
- Scars and body image issues
- Creating a survivorship care plan
- Keeping track of your medical records
- Your survivorship care plan
- Cancer’s aftermath—emotions, work, finances
- Anxiety and depression
- How to deal with your emotions
- Financial and work issues
- Health insurance concerns
- Effects on your family and relationships
- Will the cancer come back? Living with uncertainty
- Finding support
- Survivorship programs
- Spirituality and religion
- Support groups
- SPECIAL SECTION: Guidelines for a healthy lifestyle after cancer
- Survivors of childhood cancer
- What your genes tell you (and your family)
- What happens if your cancer returns
- Factors that increase your risk for a secondary cancer
- Warning signs
- Screening tests
- Follow-up recommendations
- Treatment for a recurrence
What does it mean to be a cancer survivor?
In 2016, more than 15.5 million people in the United States could call themselves cancer survivors. That is, more than 15.5 million people had heard their doctor say three of the most foreboding words in the English language—“You have cancer”—and lived to tell the tale. This army of millions survived breast cancer, prostate cancer, lymphoma, melanoma, kidney cancer, colorectal cancer, leukemia, and dozens of other malignancies.
However, the word “survivor” can be somewhat misleading, because the designation doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re cancer-free. “Although the binary notion of cure versus non-cure is understandably appealing to everyone concerned with cancer, most agree that it is not an accurate characterization of the experience,” wrote physician and cancer survivor Fitzhugh Mullan in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1985. “The vagaries, phases, and syndromes of survival are far more complex than that simple idea suggests.”
Counter to an overly simplistic cured-or-notcured scenario, cancer survival extends across a large spectrum of physical states. Often, we consider in our definition of survivors people who’ve been treated for cancer and who don’t currently have evidence of disease, but are being monitored and possibly treated to ensure the cancer doesn’t return. It can also include people whose cancer is proceeding at a slow enough pace to warrant surveillance over active treatment. And it can encompass those who are on lifelong therapy for a long-term but manageable cancer like chronic myeloid leukemia.
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