Life after Surviving Breast Cancer
Cancer research seems to be picking up speed, discoveries building upon one another and treatments changing ever more quickly as researchers come closer and closer to what we’re all waiting for: that elusive cure. At the same time, oncologists are realizing that their job isn’t completely done once their patients have gone through surgery, chemo, or radiation.
Even the end of long-term hormone therapy isn’t truly the end of dealing with cancer. No, cancer’s not a 100-yard dash: a fast race with a finish line. It’s more like a long, rugged hike up a mountain: once you reach the summit, you’ve still got quite a journey ahead of you before you’re home again. For cancer survivors, that long walk back home is called survivorship.
A new movement in the cancer community is focusing on survivorship: how to help survivors navigate the unknown waters of post-cancer life. Because, let’s face it, as a breast cancer survivor, you’ll never go back to life exactly as you knew it pre-cancer.
You’re missing a breast – or part of a breast, or both breasts. Radiation has left you with sore skin, or a thickened patch in your breast (a friend of mine likened hers to “a bagel microwaved too long.”) Chemo has made your feet and hands tingle, making it difficult sometimes to keep your balance, or to grasp anything tightly.
Maybe you’ve had lymphedema, and you’re wary of bug bites, gardening, and lifting a heavy bag of groceries. Perhaps hormone drugs have made your joints ache and your chest itch like crazy. The array of post-cancer treatment long-term effects is dazzling in its breadth, and dizzying in its complexity.
In the past, our oncologists have been sympathetic, but also rather distant; aside from the bi-yearly or yearly checkup to make sure no new lumps are evident, they’ve handed us over to our PCP or gynecologist.
Only problem is, those folks aren’t equipped to deal with all the post-cancer issues we present; we’re treated like normal, non-cancer patients. Sore muscles from Arimidex or Femara? Take Ibuprofen… but who wants to take Ibuprofen every day for five years? Lymphedema? Your PCP has probably heard of it, but is he or she up on the latest research concerning prevention? There are no fast and easy solutions to the issues we present; very often they simply remain unresolved.
That may be about to change. The medical community is realizing that we can’t simply be cast adrift to fend for ourselves. We deserve solutions to our special problems.
We cancer survivors need basic “survival tools”–including a “survival plan.” This includes a simple but complete personal cancer history that can bring any physician – PCP, gynecologist, specialist – up to date with the treatments you’ve received, and their effects. And a guide with a timetable for touching base with your oncologist, for getting a mammogram, for seeing a gynecologist; and a list of symptoms, what they might mean, and which doctor you should ask about them.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? Finally, instead of wandering through a thick fog down that long mountain, we’ll be able to follow a clearly marked path. We’ll have the tools we need to be successful survivors.
Check out the American Society of Clinical Oncologists’ sample survivorship plan checklists. When you get to their Web site, click on Breast Cancer Survivorship Plan (New 0907) and Breast Cancer Adjuvant Treatment Plan and Summary (New 0907) to view.
This is Part Three of a four-part series on cancer survivorship.
Coming up next... Survivorship: Possible Challenges, Suggested Solutions