Transitioning Back to Life After Treatment Is a Challenge for Many Cancer Survivors

Researchers are finding new ways to help

older woman is comforting by a man

Often, one of the hardest times for cancer patients is after treatment is complete, when they are in remission and are transitioning into post-treatment care.

While almost all cancer patients are glad when their treatment is over, they often have anxiety, particularly about their cancer recurring. Many also say they feel unprepared for both the physical and psycho-social challenges that go along with the transition to post-treatment care. This includes managing their ongoing cancer-related symptoms. A survivor can sometimes struggle with these issues for months—or years.

Until now, relatively few studies have attempted to identify who is or is not prepared for the transition out of treatment, how this influences their readiness for the transition, and what influence these factors have on a survivor’s long-term outcomes and their ability to manage cancer as a chronic illness.

Corinne Leach, MPH, MS, PhD, is a gerontologist who serves as the American Cancer Society’s strategic director of Cancer and Aging Research. She and her team are conducting research specific to this transition period (also called “re-entry”) in a cancer survivor’s life.

Leach is studying cancer survivors who say they feel unprepared for re-entry in order to better understand who is most at risk. Using this information, she and her team will identify any gaps in information and resources that are available for cancer survivors as they transition, then use this data to develop a model that health care providers can use to help survivors become better prepared.

To get answers, Leach is using focus groups with cancer survivors. She and her colleagues have conducted 9 focus groups since 2011. Additionally, the team collected data on a group of 1,200 breast, prostate, and colorectal cancer survivors one year after they had completed treatment to better understand who were the most and least prepared. Her team continued to follow this group of cancer survivors over a 5-year period and will soon have more findings from several other points in time. Thus far, they have examined how a survivor’s preparedness level and other characteristics were related to their ability to manage their cancer-related symptoms.

From here, they are beginning to develop a model that includes details that care providers can use to determine who is most at risk, how best to help them, and the best time to intervene.

“So far, we’ve been finding that survivors who feel the least prepared are also the survivors having the hardest time managing their physical cancer-related symptoms. They also perceive the quality of their follow-up cancer-related care as being low, and they report that they had limited discussions about potential side effects from cancer and cancer treatment with their health care providers,” says Leach. “Additionally, survivors who did a poorer job managing their cancer-related symptoms were generally younger, had other health issues, felt less prepared for re-entry, and had limited social support.”

A new online tool may help

At the same time that she has been conducting this research, Leach has also been working with colleagues at the National Cancer Institute and other experts in academia to develop and evaluate Springboard Beyond Cancer, an eHealth tool for cancer patients and survivors that empowers them to better manage their physical and emotional symptoms and live healthier lives during and after cancer.

Later in 2017, she will lead the design and implementation of a small randomized trial to study the impact of using this tool on key outcomes, including quality-of-life measures, reduced symptom distress and general improvements of health. Springboard Beyond Cancer was released in October 2016 and is available for free.

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