9 Tips for Living Well After Cancer
- Surviving cancer brings new challenges.Thanks to advances in medical science, more people than ever before are surviving cancer. Nearly 14 million of today’s Americans have survived a cancer diagnosis, and cancer survivors are living longer, healthier lives now than at any point in the past.
Yet cancer survivorship can be confusing. After working so closely with so many healthcare providers for so long, it can feel unsettling to go months between appointments. Furthermore, many cancer survivors deal with lingering side effects. These tips will help you live well after cancer.
- 1. Establish a survivorship care plan.A survivorship care plan is a guide for healthcare after cancer treatment. It outlines what medications (if any) you should continue, which doctors you should see (and when), and what health screenings and tests you should have done. Ideally, your survivorship care plan should also include specific recommendations regarding how to treat or manage treatment-related side effects.
If your oncologist has not provided you with a survivorship care plan, ask for one. Share it with your other healthcare providers and keep a copy where you can refer to it as needed.
- 2. Boost your brain power.Cancer treatment can cause difficulties with thinking, memory, coordination and learning. Though this condition is often called “chemo brain,” radiation therapy can also cause cognitive difficulty that may last months after treatment.
Boost your brain power with notes and reminders. Use a planner or app to keep track of tasks, appointments and information. Establish and follow consistent routines to minimize confusion. Brain-training exercises, including computer-based exercises, may also help rebuild brain power.
Be sure to discuss any changes in cognition with your healthcare provider, as worsening symptoms could indicate a health problem.
- 3. Watch your weight.It’s not uncommon for cancer survivors to gain weight after treatment ends. Some medications cause weight gain and make it difficult to lose weight. But because obesity is related to poor health and an increased risk of cancer recurrence, it’s a good idea to keep your weight in check by eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly.
If your weight continues to increase, despite your best efforts, talk to your healthcare provider. He or she may be able change your medications or refer you to a nutritionist who can help you tailor an eating and exercise plan.
- 4. Acknowledge fear.Every cancer survivor is plagued by the fear of a recurrence. This anxiety is heightened by the knowledge that some cancers lead to the development of second, different malignancies later in life. It’s normal to feel afraid, especially when you go for follow-up exams. Some people find talking about their fear helps. Others prefer to manage their fear independently; writing in a journal, making art, exercising and praying are all ways to manage fear.
If fear starts interfering with your life, it’s time to consult a professional. Your healthcare provider can refer you to a qualified counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist.
- 5. Get rest.Fatigue is a common side effect of cancer treatment. Plan breaks throughout the day, and schedule plenty of time for sleep at night. (Most adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep nightly.) If you have a hard time settling down for sleep, turn off all tech devices at least an hour before sleep and create a soothing bedtime ritual. Some people find a cup of hot herbal tea relaxing; others prefer to read before bed.
Regular daytime exercise can also ease fatigue–and make it easier to sleep at night.
- Monitor movement & sensation.Chemotherapy can cause peripheral nerve damage, which can cause pain and sensory changes in the feet, hands and fingers. These changes can make movement difficult and even lead to additional health problems. (A person with decreased sensation in their feet, for instance, may not notice a foot injury, which could progress to an infection.)
Your healthcare provider can prescribe medication to decrease the pain associated with peripheral nerve damage. Be sure to report any changes in sensation, and visually inspect areas with decreased sensation on a regular basis.
- 7. Take care of your teeth.Chemotherapy and radiation can damage the teeth and gums. Schedule regular dental checkups and practice good oral hygiene. Brush after every meal and floss daily.
If you had radiation to the head or neck, ask your healthcare provider for specific instructions regarding dental care.
- 8. Watch for swelling.Lymphedema, or the swelling of a limb or body part due to a buildup of lymph fluid under the skin, is a common post-cancer side effect. It’s most common in people who have had breast cancer, prostate cancer, lymphoma, melanoma and cancer of the reproductive organs.
Watch your arms and legs for signs of swelling, and report any swelling to your healthcare provider right away. A feeling of tightness in your arms or legs can also be a sign of lymphedema. Wearing loose-fitting clothing may help prevent lymphedema; so can avoiding injury and infection.
- 9. Manage your mood.Depression and anxiety are common after cancer. So are feelings of sadness and anger. In most people, these negative feelings subside over time. If they don’t–or if they begin to interfere with your everyday life–talk to your healthcare provider. Taking an antidepressant may help. Talking to other cancer survivors, either informally or formally, as in a support group, may also help. So can professional counseling. Regular sleep and exercise can help your mood as well.
Living Well After Cancer