Adjusting well to life after cancer requires taking action to boost your physical and emotional well-being
It’s over. The worry, the CyberKnife radiation therapy, the calendar filled with doctor’s appointments and tests. You’ve finally been given the all-clear. You are a cancer survivor.
No one knows how they’ll adjust to life after cancer. After all, your life has been in upheaval for months, maybe even years. You’ve changed physically and emotionally.
And these changes don’t just disappear when the cancer does. Long-term side effects, greatly reduced by CyberKnife treatment, can include fatigue, nausea and dizziness and may show up weeks or years later. Fear of the cancer returning may cause anxiety or depression.
Or you may sail through post-cancer life with no issues at all. No one can predict what will happen.
What we do know is that there are proven ways to stay healthy and limit recurrence. And the good news is that cancer survivors who want to live a healthy life don’t have to do much of anything differently than someone who’s never received the nerve-wracking diagnosis.
The how’s of staying healthy are the same for all of us and include things like exercise, a good diet and limiting stress. It’s the whys that differ now, the reasons why you should exercise and eat well. For survivors, exercise is no longer all about heart health. It’s also about staving off depression and recurrence.
So bear with us. We know you’ve heard much of this advice before – probably even more than once! But listen with new ears this time. Listen as a cancer survivor.
How cancer survivors can stay on the path of physical health
A healthy lifestyle can limit or mitigate long-term side effects from cancer treatment, according to the American Cancer Society. Although most studies can’t definitively link recurrence to specific health choices, there’s no doubt that making healthier choices can give you a better quality of life.
Create a plan
At your last appointment with us, we’ll talk about life after cancer. Well talk about what you might expect, how often you have to come back for tests and what you can do to boost your overall health.
In my January blog, I talked about maintaining a healthy diet during cancer treatment. That same healthy diet is just as important after treatment ends.
I won’t belabor the topic. But I need to address it because a national study of cancer survivors’ diets showed that they ate less healthfully than the general population. They consumed more empty calories and less fiber.
Studies haven’t been clear about diet’s effect on recurrence. But research has been quite clear about how diet affects our overall health. Cancer survivors who followed the American Institute for Cancer Research recommendations for cancer prevention significantly reduced their risk of death. A plant-based diet had the biggest impact on health and has been shown to decrease the risk of cancer.
Incorporating more plants into your diet is a great place to start. Shoot for two or three plant foods on your plate with every meal. Remember that eating nutritious foods, full of the right vitamins and minerals, will help you regain your strength and energy and keep you at a healthy weight.
Exercise can be tough for some cancer survivors. When you’re tired or weak, it’s hard to get up and go.
But the benefits have been proven. Survivors who exercise feel better physically and emotionally. They’re more optimistic and have fewer signs of depression. They build strength, sleep better and have less pain. It may even reduce the risk of recurrence. Need I say more?
The American Cancer Society recommends adult cancer survivors exercise for at least 2 ½ hours a week, including strength training at least two days a week. Check with your doctor before you begin any exercise regimen.
Take it slowly at the beginning and build up gradually. Some days you might not feel like moving at all, and some days you might feel like you can walk for miles. Listen to your body.
Sleep – and our lack of it – has been much in the news lately. Nearly half of adults in the United States don’t get enough sleep, and the problem is even more common in cancer survivors. As many as 90 percent report trouble sleeping. Treatment side effects, stress and myriad other reasons can cause these sleep issues.
A restful night in bed is vital to healing. Being sleep-deprived can keep you from exercising and affect your memory, concentration, hormone production and mood. The list goes on.
Talk with us about making adjustments after your CyberKnife treatments, which may include lifestyle changes like limiting caffeine, medications or cognitive behavioral therapy.
We all know that smoking can cause cancer. That should be reason enough to quit.
But lighting up also can increase your chances of recurrence and the risk of developing a secondary cancer.
Like any bad habit, smoking is hard to break. You’ll probably have to try more than once. Ask your primary care physician for information on resources from acupuncture and patches to hypnotism.
Staying on top of post-cancer emotional health
Wouldn’t it be great to you could look up “cancer survivor” in the dictionary and get a definitive profile – how to act, what you’re going to feel like, whether you’ll have any long-term side effects?
Unfortunately, there’s no one way to be a cancer survivor.
After you’ve finished treatment, you may find that you’re bombarded with a host of new feelings. You’ve lost your cheerleaders, your platoon of meal makers. It may seem as if everyone but you forgot you had cancer.
It’s not surprising that cancer survivors in the U.S. take medicine for anxiety or depression at about twice the rate of people without a history of cancer.
Survivors worry about the cancer coming back. They may have sexual difficulties, infertility or body-image issues after surgery or treatment.
It’s imperative to be proactive about your emotional health. If you don’t deal with the emotional side effects of cancer, you may find it harder to heal and move on.
I know. Easier said than done. But there are ways to reduce stress, even if it’s just in small ways like learning to live with a little more mess if you’re a neatnik or staying away from your “sandpaper” people (the ones who rub you the wrong way).
Find a coping strategy that works for you
What makes you feel more alive and helps you forget the stress? Do more of it.
You may also find the following ideas help to alleviate the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
- Meditation or other mindfulness techniques like yoga, which has been studied for its links to easing pain and fatigue in cancer patients and survivors
- Therapists can be of immense help, yet cancer survivors often don’t seek out mental health professionals. Don’t be afraid to give counseling a try; we can provide resources.
- Cancer support groups, either online or face to face
- Advocacy or volunteer work, especially with cancer organizations
- Exercise. It seems to be the cure for all ills, doesn’t it? But it really can improve your mood.
Choose to be healthy
You are now one of an estimated 15.5 million cancer survivors in the country. That number will continue to grow as treatments like CyberKnife improve.
We know it’s not a club you wanted to join, but these millions of survivors are proof positive that it is possible to live a healthy life after cancer.