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Get the Facts: Issues Faced by Cancer Survivors

Focused on Health - June 2009

A cancer survivor is commonly defined as anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer, from the time of diagnosis andCancer Survivor treatment through the remaining years of life. M. D. Anderson uses the term “cancer survivor” to describe people who have been diagnosed with cancer and the people in their lives who are affected by the diagnosis, including family members, friends and caregivers.

According to the National Cancer Institute, more than 12 million cancer survivors are alive in the U.S. today. New and improved therapies are allowing an increasing number of people to enjoy a full life after cancer treatment. However, staying healthy can be a challenge for cancer survivors because intensive treatments can create unique and long-lasting health issues.

Managing physical changes of cancer treatment

Survivors may experience physical changes caused by the cancer itself and/or the therapies used to treat cancer. These changes usually depend on the cancer type and the treatment received.

Short-term side effects occur during treatment.

Long-term side effects are those that begin during treatment and continue after the end of treatment.

Late side effects are symptoms that appear months or years after treatment has ended.

Some survivors experience:

  • bladder and bowel changes
  • cancer that returns or second cancers
  • diabetes
  • eyesight, hearing, speech and dental problems
  • hormone changes
  • fatigue
  • hypothyroidism
  • learning and memory problems
  • lymphedema
  • neuropathy
  • organ damage
  • osteoporosis
  • pain
  • premature aging
  • sexual issues
  • sleep loss

Recognize psychological, social, emotional, financial and spiritual changesCancer Survivor

As a survivor, cancer and its treatment do not only affect the body. Survivors also may experience psychological, social, emotional and spiritual changes. It is not easy to see these as separate because they are closely connected.

Psychological – Survivors may see a change in their self-image and/or self-esteem. They also may experience a change in family roles.

Social – Survivors often experience a decreased sense of social well-being as they attempt to return to the social and professional lives they had before treatment.

Emotional – Many survivors experience fear, anxiety, anger, guilt, grief or depression.

Spiritual – For many survivors, life takes on a new meaning after cancer. Values may change. Some survivors rely on their spiritual beliefs to help them through illness. Others may feel abandoned.

Economic – Money issues can have a major impact on survivors. The cost of initial and continued care can become a financial burden for survivors, especially when coupled with the potential loss of employment by the patient or caregiver.

Sexuality – At some point, survivors may find that cancer has affected their sexual health. Some of these changes may include: struggles to feel normal or attractive; loss of desire to have sex or difficulty being sexually responsive or intimate with a partner; physical changes to the body (e.g., removal of one or both breasts or testicles); and trouble enjoying sex because it is painful.

These changes can affect a survivor’s quality of life and may continue to be felt after treatment is over. Some effects can be temporary, others permanent. There are steps, however, that a survivor and their caregiver can take to address many of these changes.

Develop a follow-up care planCancer Survivor

After treatment, most survivors will likely see their primary care doctor for follow-up care. A local doctor may know little about the survivor’s cancer and treatment. Before going home, it’s a good idea for the survivor to work with their cancer doctor to develop a follow-up plan of care. This plan can be shared with the survivor’s primary care doctor. 

The plan should include:

  • The type of cancer you had
  • All the treatments you had for your cancer
  • Possible side effects of your treatments
  • When to come back for follow-up visits
  • The type of follow-up tests you will need
  • Tips for staying healthy

A survivor’s cancer doctor can suggest what yearly tests and procedures are needed based on the survivor’s type of cancer.

Developing a care plan can help address some of the physical changes that survivors may experience and may alleviate feelings of fear and anxiety.  

Speak with others

Unfortunately, the perfect guide on how to be a survivor does not exist. However, connecting with others and finding the right resources is vital for the survivor to effectively adapt to what many term as a “new normal.” Below are survivorship resources offered by M. D. Anderson.

Online support

  • Cancer Survivor Message Board – Talk online with other patients, caregivers and friends about the long-term effects of cancer treatment.
  • WarmNet – Online support and information for cancer patients, caregivers, family members and friends.
  • Spiritual Pathways Weblog - News, spiritually uplifting stories and helpful tips for patients, caregivers and congregation leaders.

In-person support

  • Anderson Network - Call 1-800-345-6324 to speak with a cancer survivor with a similar diagnosis.

Professional support

Survivorship Clinics - These clinics focus on ongoing health and well-being for patients who have completed cancer treatment at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center. In addition to monitoring for signs of cancer recurrence, survivor care focuses on the identification, prevention and control of the side effects associated with cancer and its treatment. Survivorship clinics include:

For more information, contact the Survivorship Program at 713-745-8720.

Childhood Cancer Survivors Clinic – This clinic helps childhood cancer survivors overcome physical, psychological and developmental problems that may result from cancer or its treatments. Survivors don't have to be M. D. Anderson patients to take advantage of long-term cancer care services.

Coping with these issues can be overwhelming for both survivor and caregiver. Maintaining a healthy attitude can be crucial to the health and wellbeing of cancer survivors and those supporting them.

Related Links

  1. Connecting with the Cancer Survivor (M. D. Anderson)
  2. Keeping Patients on Track with Their Education and Career Goals
    (M. D. Anderson)
  3. A Pediatric Survivor's Story: Lisa Richardson (M. D. Anderson)
  4. Survivorship (M. D. Anderson)

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