Congratulations – you finished cancer treatment and received great news from your doctor: you’re in remission. Now it’s time to plan for the coming months and years. The journey from active treatment to survivorship is one of the most complex aspects of the cancer experience. After treatment ends, some survivors experience a great sense of relief. Others become flooded with anxiety about the uncertainty that lies ahead. Many find their feelings change from day-to-day; all of this is very normal and should be expected when going through this transition. The challenge for every breast cancer survivor is figuring out how to return to everyday life during this time of transition. Here are 3 things to consider as you adjust to life after treatment.
1. Body and Soul
Living a healthy lifestyle is crucial to cancer recovery and survivorship. Eating nutritious foods and a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep can help your body recover from cancer treatment – and may also help put your mind at ease by giving you a greater sense of control over your life. It’s also important to avoid unhealthy habits, such as smoking and excessive drinking, which have been linked to an increased risk of cancer recurrence.
Transitioning from cancer treatment to survivorship isn’t just about taking care of your body – it’s also about healing your mind. You may be struggling to find purpose without the structure, security, and camaraderie of your health care team. Support groups can help fill the gap, offering you the chance to share your feelings about life after treatment and hear from other like-minded survivors. Contact your local chapter of the American Cancer Society (ACS) for more information. Or try an online message board for cancer survivors, such as the BreastCancer.Org Community and Discussion Boards.
Follow-up care is important to help maintain your long-term health, manage any lasting side effects from treatment, and make sure the cancer has not returned after treatment. Continue to see your primary care provider for all general health care recommendations for a woman your age, including cancer screening tests. In general, you should plan to visit your oncologist every 3 to 6 months for the first 3 years, every 6 to 12 months for the following 2 years, and then once each year thereafter. During these appointments, ask if there are any possible lingering side effects or long-term safety concerns from your treatment. Women who have been through menopause and are receiving a type of hormonal therapy called a selective estrogen receptor modulator (SERM), such as tamoxifen, should have a gynecologic exam yearly and tell the doctor about any vaginal bleeding. In addition, take note of any new symptoms you may be experiencing and bring these to your doctor’s attention.
3. The Road Ahead
Although the prognosis for estrogen receptor-positive (ER+) breast cancer is generally favorable, the risk of recurrence continues beyond 5 years for this type of cancer. Find out your personal risk of cancer recurrence and what you can do to lower the risk. Ask your physician about available tests such as a genomic test that can help predict individual recurrence risk. Your specific preferences, perspectives and medical circumstances should be carefully considered when discussing treatment options after the year 5-mark. Be sure to ask your doctor about the risks and benefits of continuing anti-estrogen therapy, the likely side effects, how long treatment will last, and the costs.
Adjusting to life after cancer treatment isn’t easy, but education and advanced planning can help you make thoughtful decisions for the next phase of your breast cancer journey. Fortunately, there are plenty of resources available to help you and your doctor create a personalized survivorship care plan.