When anyone crosses over the threshold from cancer fighter to cancer survivor, it is an undeniably wonderful occasion. In fact, there is a global event dedicated to it, National Cancer Survivors Day®, held in communities around the world on the first Sunday in June; this year, it falls on June 5. Participants gather to honor survivors and remind them that life after cancer can be happy and rewarding.
But while beating cancer is joyous, the next step in the journey can also be complex, and some survivors face new battles after emerging victorious from their war with cancer. These physical and emotional issues have become increasingly apparent as cancer treatments have improved and the number of survivors has grown.
“The fact there are so many more cancer survivors now than ever before speaks to how far cancer treatments have progressed, even in the past 10 years or so. That is fantastic, but in order to be so effective, some treatments have also become more aggressive. As a result, you see a lot of late term effects like fatigue, neuropathy, depression and anxiety – not only from cancer, but also from the treatments,” says Dr. Timothy Pearman, Board Certified Clinical Health Psychologist, Director of Supportive Oncology at Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center and Associate Professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
Dr. Pearman has firsthand experience with the emotional rollercoaster of cancer. His mother and grandmother were diagnosed with breast cancer within a year of each other when he was a teenager. Fortunately, both survived. Then, in 2006, Dr. Pearman himself was diagnosed with head and neck cancer. By 2007, he had beaten the disease.
And Dr. Pearman says there is hope for all survivors, with a variety of avenues to choose for both physical and emotional healing.
“A service like the peer support offered by Imerman Angels is critical for depression and anxiety, because of the power of connecting with a fellow cancer survivor who truly understands and because it is available to anyone living in any part of the world,” he says.
There are also support groups that focus on cancer related depression and anxiety. Even survivors who live in remote areas can get access to groups of this nature, as some are available online and are monitored by certified professionals.
Dr. Pearman enthusiastically calls exercise the “cure-all” for both physical and emotional side effects. For example, contrary to popular belief, physical activity rarely makes fatigue worse. Most of the time, it eases fatigue. And studies have found that any type of exercise is beneficial, so survivors can choose the activities they enjoy most.
“For people who are just beginning to venture into exercising, start off by simply moving more. For example, one routine could start with moderate walking or a brisk walk for 10 minutes three to five times a week and then increasing the duration 20 percent each week. And I recommend yoga for people that have physical limitations, because it combines the physical exercise with meditation. Also, a good yoga teacher can modify the positions to accommodate any physical disability,” Dr. Pearman says.
The Institute of Medicine gave national attention to the importance of survivor wellness when it issued a report in 2005 recommending that every cancer patient receive an individualized survivorship care plan complete with guidelines for monitoring and maintaining their health.
And the medical community’s quest to ease the transition from cancer fighter to cancer survivor is making great strides. In Chicago, the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center is one example of an organization that has devoted significant resources to this goal. About two years ago, the medical facility started the Cancer Survivor Institute, which is devoted to conducting high quality research focused on improving quality of life for cancer survivors. Every patient at Lurie has the opportunity at the end of their treatment to meet with the Cancer Survivorship Clinic to receive an individualized plan for the future. The information they receive addresses the potential or late effects of cancer treatment that survivors need to monitor over time.
One of the biggest initiatives at Lurie involves a test in the online patient portal that helps to identify which of five main areas – fatigue, pain, overall physical function problems, depression and anxiety – are issues for survivors. The questions asked and the length of the test vary based on each patient’s response, yielding a specific, personalized weighting of those five different areas and allowing doctors to develop much more personalized treatments for survivors.
Dr. Pearman feels grateful to help cancer survivors overcome the issues they face.
“You are invited into people’s lives at such a scary, vulnerable time and get to see them grow and take something positive away from that negative experience, and that is very rewarding, “ he says.
Click here to request a Survivor Mentor Angel and receive free one-on-one support from Imerman Angels.