Life After Cancer. Now What?

After kicking cancer to the curb, your No. 1 priority is staying healthy. “You have to understand what makes your body healthy and do away with things that cause it harm,” says Kimberly Hutcherson, M.D., a radiologist at Gwinnett Medical Center and a breast cancer survivor. 

Proper diet and frequent exercise are essential. Plus, both have the added ability of battling fatigue, a common long-term side effect of cancer, Dr. Hutcherson says. So load your plate with fruits and veggies and take that daily walk. And if you drink or smoke, minimize alcohol intake and throw out those cigarettes for good. “You have to take control of your wellness and change your lifestyle,” Dr. Hutcherson says. 


Establish a follow-up plan
When cancer treatment ends, it’s critical to have a follow-up care plan in place, says Stephanie Jardine, R.N., education project manager for the Oncology Nursing Society (ONS). Jardine is also involved with Journey Forward, a collaboration of cancer organizations, including the ONS, that focuses on improving survivorship care.

What should be in that plan? Regular medical checkups to test for recurrence of cancer and to discuss any new symptoms, and regular screenings, such as Pap tests, mammograms and colonoscopies. Your specific plan will depend on the cancer you’ve survived and the treatment you underwent.

But as a guideline, for the first two or three years after treatment, you can expect to see your oncologist every three to four months, or, depending on your situation, you may see your primary care physician instead. After that, appointments are scheduled once a year.

Coping with body changes
Just as a fight with cancer may strengthen relationships, it also can throw spousal roles and family dynamics for a loop. “Role confusion happens throughout treatment,” says Michele Galioto, R.N., director of education for the Oncology Nursing Society.

“Body image changes, and it can affect both physical and emotional intimacy.” A mastectomy, which is surgery to remove the breast, can affect the way a woman feels about herself, and for men, side effects of prostate cancer treatment can include erectile dysfunction. If sexual problems are creating a divide, speak to your healthcare provider, she stresses. More than likely, he or she can help with information, medication, medical devices or some combination.

Other physical changes related to treatment range from fatigue to difficulty swallowing. Know that you’re not the only one experiencing these physical changes and that help and support are available.

Managing stress and anxiety
Perhaps one of the toughest burdens survivors carry is something that can’t be physically measured. It’s the intangible stress that comes the moment the diagnosis is delivered. “Pain is easy to pinpoint,” Galioto says. “Anxiety and distress are often underrecognized. It’s a conversation to have even if you’re five-plus years out.” Don’t let your cancer-fueled concerns take over your life and keep you from enjoying survivorship.

Your physician may need to prescribe an antidepressant, or you may need to find new outlets for your stress, such as a new hobby or form of exercise. You may even need to find a good social worker to lean on and provide guidance as you find your footing, Jardine suggests. Drewitz believes that survivors should take time each day to reflect and be thankful for life after cancer. “Once you get to this point, no matter what age, you have to say, ‘I’ve been given a second opportunity,” he says. “A very important part of cancer recovery is to find peace every day.”

Find a Cancer Support Group to Join Near You
Connect with other cancer survivors through one of GMC’s cancer support programs. Visit
gwinnettmedicalcenter.org/cancersupport.

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