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Cancer can truly change someone’s life as they knew it. From being diagnosed through treatment and survival, patients and survivors endure so much physically and mentally. Every patient experiences different effects and will find their own ways to cope as they adjust to their “new normal.”
There is no one way to deal with the aftermath of a diagnosis and come to terms with what you went through and what it means to be a survivor. In honor of National Cancer Survivor’s Day this past Sunday, we put together some tips for cancer survivors to deal with these huge adjustments in their life and any side effects they may face throughout their journey.
Coping with the Mental Side Effects
From the moment a person learns of their cancer diagnosis, they experience a whirlwind of emotions. Dealing with cancer is mentally exhausting for so many reasons. In survivorship, there are still many mental obstacles one has to work through, including:
“Chemo brain” is a sort of mental fog that patients and survivors may experience during and after treatment. It’s a rather common side effect of conventional treatments, like chemotherapy and radiation. This mental block can entail forgetting things, trouble concentrating, difficulty remembering details or common words, and difficulty multi-tasking. Dealing with chemo brain can be incredibly frustrating and it can last for varying amounts of time.
Experts suggest tackling memory problems by keeping a detailed planner or note of any important information you frequently rely on. Exercising the brain by taking a class or just doing word puzzles can also help the mind focus and begin to better recall details. Survivors may also find following a daily routine and focusing on one task at a time will improve their concentration.
Many survivors will find themselves facing post-traumatic stress (PTS). A cancer journey is full of stressful events, which leave an indelible impression. PTS can be triggered at any time following diagnosis through long-term survivorship. Symptoms of PTS are very similar to other stress disorders, including sleep problems, irritation or fear, inability to think clearly, and loss of interest in relationships and hobbies.
The effects of PTS can be long-lasting and greatly influence quality of life, so it’s important to recognize these possible symptoms and seek help. Crisis intervention, a method focused on problem solving and coping skills, can benefit many. Others have turned to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which focuses on changing thinking patterns to relieve this immense stress. With CBT, survivors will learn how to recognize their symptoms and how to manage them. CBT also teaches ways to become less sensitive to triggers, as well as recognizing distressing thought patterns to replace them with more positive, balanced thinking.
Feelings of Anxiety or Guilt
Anxiety and a sense of survivor’s guilt are also very common among cancer survivors. Anxiety can take over for a variety of reasons, whether it’s “scanxiety” over results from an annual checkup or brought on by other treatment side effects, like worry over pain or trouble sleeping. Practicing breathing and relaxation exercises can relieve symptoms, but experts believe sharing one’s feelings with loved ones or professionals is the best way to deal with anxiety.
Survivor’s guilt is the guilt of surviving when others have not. With an aggressive cancer like mesothelioma for example, where only 35% of patients live to a year after diagnosis, the guilt can set in frequently and fiercely. Even long-term survivors often face survivor’s guilt when they hear of recurrence or loss in the community. Turning that guilt into an outlet for positive change, like raising awareness or just working on one’s own recovery, can help diminish the troubling feeling.
Having a support system is so important when dealing with these mental and emotional challenges. Seeking professional counseling or therapy can make a huge difference in tackling these issues, as well. A trained professional can provide needed emotional support and coping mechanisms to better overcome these barriers. Survivors should also consider joining a support group to help them talk through what they’re experiencing with others facing similar problems.
Dealing with Physical Side Effects
Survivors may also face a variety of physical challenges as a result of their cancer treatment. These limitations can include fatigue, pain, nerve damage, lymphedema, and overall feeling weaker and deconditioned.
Being able to stay physically active and manage these debilitating side effects are important aspects of cultivating a high quality of life after cancer. As such, physical therapy is becoming more standard in cancer rehabilitation. Physical therapy has many different branches and can help tackle any of these physical side effects experienced during and after treatment.
Experts have found aerobic exercise can help counteract fatigue and lymphedema. Strength training in moderation can help recondition the body and overcome fatigue as well. Physical therapy can help improve nerve function or better compensate for dysfunction, while therapeutic stretching and strengthening can help manage pain.
Studies show many adult cancer survivors experience decrements in their quality of life and limitations in basic activities of daily life. More frequently, survivors are turning to occupational therapy, which can help overcome detrimental physical side effects as well as some mental effects. Occupational therapy is meant to help both patients and survivors reach their full potential and abilities at work and in everyday living.
Occupational therapy intervention methods can range widely based on someone’s individual needs. Some methods may include:
- Determining adaptations or technological assistance to ease everyday activities like bathing or dressing, which can prove tiring or physically challenging
- Strategies for conserving energy at work and simplifying activities to allow for better participation while supporting one’s health
- Education and lifestyle management with information on preventive health, improving fitness, etc.
- Creating cognitive strategies to help with memory and concentration
This resource can be helpful for those in any point of their cancer journey, and allow both patients and survivors to maintain a better quality of life.
Whatever a cancer survivor is facing, it’s clear their biggest asset is a support system. Whether turning to family and friends or licensed professionals, support is essential in recovery and figuring out a new normal.
Patients and survivors should ask their cancer treatment team for advice on finding resources and support groups. Many medical centers have their own cancer support groups or can provide a list of reputable resources to turn to. National cancer organizations can also provide helpful agencies and resources, though in some cases it may be a bit more challenging to find local support this way. Many also turn to online communities to discuss what they’re going through and give advice to fellow survivors.
Every survivor will face their own challenges and deal with these side effects differently. But they don’t need to try to overcome it all alone.