Thanks to advances in prevention, early detection, treatment, and care, more than 16.9 million Americans diagnosed with cancer are still alive today. But as all cancer survivors know, the effects of the disease don’t simply end when treatment does. Physical, emotional, and financial hardships can persist for years following successful treatment. As we celebrate National Cancer Survivors Day, our Cancer Care team offers five steps survivors can take to improve their quality of life after cancer.
1. Establish a Comprehensive Survivorship Plan
No cancer survivor should have to end their treatment plan wondering, “what’s next?” As recommended by the Institute of Medicine, most health care providers will work with cancer survivors to develop a Survivorship Care Plan. It serves as a blueprint for helping the patient move forward and maintain their health after cancer treatment and should include:
- A detailed summary of the patient’s diagnosis and treatment history
- Short- and long-term side effects to be aware of
- Tips for managing complications, symptoms, and body changes
- Resources for making healthy lifestyle changes
- Sources of support
- Contact information for the patient’s dedicated care team
“It is expected and encouraged that you receive ongoing care and support, even after your treatment plan has been completed,” says Nicole Luehring, RN, BSN, Nurse Navigator with ThedaCare Cancer Care. “Be sure to keep up with all follow-up appointments, and if your health care team does not provide a survivorship plan, you should request one.”
2. Follow Nutrition Guidelines
Studies show that maintaining a healthy diet and weight can reduce the risk of cancer returning, help fight off potential infections, and increase healing after surgery. Building even small changes into your daily routine — such as limiting processed foods, alcohol, and red meat — can yield big results.
Unfortunately, some cancer survivors may experience lingering changes in taste and smell, decreased appetite, or weight gain due to inactivity or hormonal treatment. To manage these side effects, patients should try:
- Eating smaller, more frequent meals
- Adding spices or seasoning to food to bring out its flavor
- Using plastic utensils and avoiding iron skillets if food tastes metallic or bitter
- Opening a window or turning on a fan to reduce smells that induce nausea
The health care team will partner with registered dietitians to help the patient establish nutrition habits that fit their unique lifestyle. The American Institute for Cancer Research is also a great resource for building an individualized weight loss strategy and exploring nutrient-rich recipe ideas.
3. Participate in Physical Therapy
Cancer treatments can be hard on the body and may lead to nerve damage, swelling, exhaustion, weakness, and chronic pain. Participating in physical therapy can help patients manage, reduce, or even eliminate such impairments, allowing them to live more comfortably. Physical therapy treatments may include:
- Aerobic exercise
- Strength training
- Soft tissue mobilization
- Therapeutic massage
- Stretching and strengthening
- Endurance training
Working closely with your cancer care team, a physical therapist can help patients regain strength, reduce stress, boost endurance, and maintain the energy they need to live their best life after cancer.
4. Join a Holistic Wellness Program
“Navigating the physical and mental roller coaster of surviving cancer can affect your work, family life, and relationships,” says Kelly Krueger, RN Clinical Team Leader with ThedaCare Cancer Care. “That’s why it is so important to implement a wellness plan designed to strengthen the body, while stabilizing mental and spiritual health.”
Establishing an exercise program tailored to individual goals and abilities can:
- Restore physical mobility
- Improve self-esteem
- Lower risk of anxiety and depression
- Prevent illness and infection
- Reduce the impact of nausea and fatigue
- Aid with sleep
- Improve cognitive symptoms
- Help maintain a healthy weight
The 12-week LiveSTRONG program offered through the Fox Cities YMCA is a great option for cancer survivors seeking to reclaim their health by way of building muscle mass and strength, increasing flexibility and endurance, and improving confidence and self-esteem.
5. Lean on Fellow Cancer Survivors
Social connectedness is imperative to the healing process following a cancer diagnosis and treatment.
“Many cancer patients may feel as though their loved ones and friends can’t quite understand what they’re going through, or want to avoid putting any strain on their personal relationships,” Luehring says. “That’s where support groups come in.”
Feelings of anger, vulnerability, fear, sadness, and uncertainty are normal and healthy responses to cancer. Connecting with fellow cancer survivors through local and online support groups allows survivors to navigate their emotions honestly and openly, and serves as an important reminder that they are not alone.
Several support group options are available, including those offered through: