By Kevin D. Stein, PhD
National Cancer Survivor's Day was this past Sunday (June 5). What better time to share some of the many tips cancer survivors say they've used to improve their quality of life and empower themselves during and after their fight against cancer.
There are nearly 12 million cancer survivors in the United States. "Survivor" can have different meanings to people with cancer. Some people use the word to refer to anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer. For example, someone living with cancer may be considered a survivor. Some people use the term when referring to someone who has completed cancer treatment. And still others call a person a survivor if he or she has lived several years past a cancer diagnosis. The American Cancer Society believes that each individual has the right to define his or her own experience with cancer and considers a cancer survivor to be anyone who defines himself or herself this way, from the time of diagnosis throughout the balance of his or her life.
But no matter where someone is in their cancer experience, the following tips may empower survivors and improve their quality of life.
1. Stop and smell the roses: Many cancer survivors actually report positive outcomes of the cancer experience. These outcomes typically take the form of a newfound appreciation for life, improved relationships with family, friends, and co-workers, and spending more time on hobbies and leisure activities.
2. Embrace the "teachable moment": Some studies have suggested that the diagnosis and treatment of cancer can act as a catalyst for change, offering individuals the opportunity to discuss and consider changes to their lifestyle that can both reduce the risk of future cancers and other illnesses, as well as improve overall health and well-being. These changes can include better diet and nutrition, more physical activity, drinking less alcohol, and quitting tobacco. In many places, there are American College of Sports Medicine fitness trainers specially certified to work with cancer survivors.
3. Stay informed: Maintaining good communication with health care providers and closely adhering to cancer screening and surveillance recommendations should be a goal of survivorship care. In fact, a growing number of cancer survivors are asking for and receiving summaries of the cancer treatments they received and, along with their providers, are developing Survivorship Care Plans. These plans not only identify potential late and long-term effects associated with their cancer treatments, but also outline ongoing health care needs and goals for healthy living. The American Cancer Society offers one here.
4. Learn (and use!!!) proven, effective self-help techniques: The vast majority of disease-free cancer survivors are symptom-free and generally have a good quality of life. However, a significant proportion will suffer from persistent symptoms such as pain, fatigue, problems with memory and concentration (chemo brain), and emotional distress (anxiety, depression, fear of cancer recurrence). Others may develop symptoms and other chronic conditions long after their cancer treatment is completed, often referred to as "late effects." For a number of reasons, these symptoms often go undetected and are poorly managed. So, regardless of how severe their symptoms are, survivors should always report and discuss symptoms with a member of their health care team to ensure that providers are made aware of the issue, can offer help, or direct survivors to available resources and support. After discussions with their health care team, survivors may want to consider using some simple, straightforward non-medicine self-help strategies that have been shown to be safe and effective in controlling mild to moderate symptoms. Collectively referred to as "stress management," these methods include:
a. Deep breathing
b. Muscle relaxation exercises
c. Positive thinking
d. Guided imagery
5. Give back: Many survivors take the opportunity to make a difference in someone else's life by sharing their knowledge and wisdom with others who are going through the cancer experience. This will not only help the person in treatment navigate the physical, emotional, social, and spiritual/existential journey, but may also be a rewarding experience for the survivor. There are numerous opportunities to volunteer with the American Cancer Society, or check out other opportunities that are close to your heart. And of course, there is no higher cause than serving as an informal caregiver for a friend or family member who is going through the cancer experience.
Hopefully, these tips will help survivors achieve the goal of healthier, stronger, more empowered lives!
Get more information about what you can do stay well after cancer, or learn about American Cancer Society programs to help people with cancer. Be sure to also check out the ACS Cancer Survivors Network, an online peer support community of survivors and caregivers.
Also, check out an ongoing series of free survivor workshops online or via telephone conference.
Kevin Stein, PhD, is managing director of the Behavioral Research Center at the American Cancer Society.