Now that your cancer treatment is done, you’re ready to get back to normal life. However, many cancer survivors find that life after cancer is a “new” normal. Physical and emotional changes brought on by cancer or its treatment can linger for years or a lifetime. As a survivor, regular follow-up care is important. Your care plan should include frequent visits to a primary care doctor, appropriate cancer screenings and healthy lifestyle choices such as exercise and proper nutrition.
MD Anderson has tools to help you and your doctor create a follow-up care plan to suit your needs. See our list of recommended cancer screening exams and ask your doctor which ones are right for you.
MD Anderson’s cancer survivorship algorithms help your primary doctor follow best practices in post-treatment care of cancer survivors. Find the cancer survivorship algorithm that best describes your cancer and share it with your doctor.
MD Anderson Survivorship Clinics
Our survivorship clinics will help you develop a follow-up care plan to make sure you’re getting the most out of life after cancer. Each clinic has specialists that focus on a specific cancer type, providing care based on guidelines designed for survivors just like you.
Your survivorship treatment plan will include:
- Regular physical exams with an overview of your recent medical history
- Monitoring for early detection of new or returning cancers
- Management of cancer and treatment-related side effects
- Lifestyle coaching and tips to help reduce cancer risk
- Referrals to community resources and support groups
It is still important to see your primary care doctor and to let them know about your follow-up care plan. For regular (non-cancer) check-ups, we will communicate with your primary doctor, but it is up to you to follow up regularly with them.
To make an appointment in our cancer survivorship clinics, speak to your MD Anderson doctor or health care team. They can refer you to the appropriate survivorship clinic.
When found early, breast cancer can often be treated successfully. “90-97% of patients with early stage breast cancer are alive and well even 10 or 15 years after treatment,” says Carlos Barcenas, M.D., associate medical director of the MD Anderson breast cancer survivorship clinic.
But survivorship is complex and can bring new challenges. Here, Barcenas shares three insights to help breast cancer patients with the transition into survivorship.
1. Survivorship means something different to everyone.
“The definition of survivorship isn’t exact,” Barcenas says. “It depends on who you ask.”
Historically, there has been a five-year mark during survivorship, Barcenas notes. “For several decades up until recently, patients who had estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer would receive tamoxifen or an aromatase inhibitor for five years to help reduce their risk of recurrence,” he says.
But Barcenas argues it’s an outdated way to view survivorship. “The reality is that doesn't apply anymore. We now sometimes give endocrine therapy for 10 years,” Barcenas says. The length of endocrine therapy is determined by the risk of the patient, but it shouldn’t deter patients from considering themselves survivors.
Survivorship is also very personal and can mean more than just a year mark in a patient’s cancer experience. “Some patients feel they’re survivors from day one,” Barcenas says.
2. Surveillance and side effects are the focus of breast cancer survivorship.
At MD Anderson, when breast cancer patients are five years out from their diagnosis, their care is transitioned to the breast cancer survivorship clinic. The attention on their care moves from treating the cancer to staying healthy and cancer-free.
“At that point, we’re really focused on monitoring for disease recurrence and managing lingering treatment side effects,” Barcenas says. Neuropathy and lymphedema can be long-lasting, and new side effects, such as heart problems and bone health issues, can occur even years after treatment.
“These are side effects that may never go away, so patients may need support managing them for the long-term,” Barcenas says. In terms of lymphedema, patients may need physical therapy, or in some cases, plastic surgery. Because these treatments are so specialized, Barcenas says there’s benefit to being seen in a survivorship clinic at a cancer center like MD Anderson that will have more familiarity and expertise.
In addition to the breast cancer coming back, there’s also the risk of a secondary cancer – possibly even a secondary breast cancer. That’s why Barcenas says it’s so important for patients to stay on top of preventive care and routine cancer screenings. Beyond mammograms, Barcenas suggests that breast cancer survivors follow recommended screening guidelines for colonoscopies, Pap tests and skin cancer screenings.
Survivorship clinics often have other specialists that can help patients stay healthy. These may include a nutritionist, exercise experts, integrative medicine specialists and psychologists. “Our job is to connect all these services for patients so that they can stay healthy in this next phase of their lives,” Barcenas says.
A survivorship clinic offers these services under one roof, but survivors may choose to see their primary care doctor instead, and that’s OK. “One important purpose of a survivorship care plan is to transition patients back to their primary care physician and back into their normal life as it was before breast cancer,” Barcenas says.
3. We’re here for you no matter what the future holds.
Transitioning to survivorship is a celebratory time, but it may still come with anxiety. Barcenas says many patients fear the detachment from their primary medical oncologist. “It’s not uncommon for patients to feel that if they’re not seeing their oncologist anymore that something may happen – like their risk of a recurrence changes,” Barcenas says. “But that’s not true.”
He says that your primary medical oncologist will always have a place in your care team, but they’re not needed in the survivorship phase and that’s actually a good thing. “Although you’re not going to be seeing them every year, they're still there and if there's a problem, they’ll always be there for you,” Barcenas advises.
“The most important thing to understand is that survivorship care is part of the plan from the beginning,” Barcenas says. “It’s our goal.”
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