Lingering Effects of Cancer Treatment
Often a cancer story describes a person’s diagnosis and their journey through treatment. It closes with the person in remission or their condition taking a turn for the worse. But what about after actually beating cancer? What lingering issues—both physical and emotional—can crop up? Ideastream’s Anne Glausser reports.
Renee Thomas was born in a blizzard. But she faced a bigger storm at age 59 when a tumor the size of a baseball appeared in her brain.
Doctors wheeled her straight into the OR. "The next thing I know we were going flying down the hallway…My blood pressure was like 160 and climbing…It was festering so much, growing at a rapid rate and it was a stage 4, very aggressive," describes Thomas.
She had emergency surgery then underwent 42 days of radiation & another 6 months of chemotherapy. It was a success and now after several months of intense rehab, she’s considered stable.
She’s lucky, and grateful, to be alive. But the whole experience left her reeling, wondering how to deal with the aftermath of this life-changing event. "It’s hard because you look at yourself in the mirror, and I’m like, well this is me. What am I going to do now?" says Thomas.
She can’t drive—she’s on seizure meds. She’s often tired, feels weak, has memory lapses. And the biggest problem is she can’t go back to her job as a health aid.
"People they see you walking, talking…I go back to my floor, I get hugs and everything then I leave cause it hurts me because I can’t work with my buddies anymore," says Thomas.
Not working means no income. She had to apply for welfare, Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps. "I’m going to a food pantry. That hurts, you know. And I don’t have no backup," says Thomas.
Though Thomas’s situation is an extreme example, she isn’t alone in struggling with the aftermath of her cancer. Many survivors face lingering physical and emotional issues.
With better treatments and earlier diagnoses, the ranks of cancer survivors have swelled over the years: It’s estimated that two-thirds of Americans now live at least 5 years after a cancer diagnosis, as compared to only about half in the 1970s. But a 2005 report from the Institute of Medicine found a shortfall in our medical system’s ability to care for these survivors.
"Since the Institute of Medicine report, there’s been a huge initiative to try to improve cancer survivorship services," says Dr. Halle Moore, a medical oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic who specializes in cancer survivorship issues. "Many institutions have started to formalize survivorship visits for patients in which they’re given information about the treatment they received as well as follow up guidelines going forward. We’ve tried to increase communication between the oncology providers and the primary care providers who will be taking over the care for these patients," she says.
Longterm cancer treatment side-effects include swollen limbs, depression, sexual dysfunction, fertility issues, heart problems, nerve pain, fatigue and cognitive impairment, sometimes referred to as “chemobrain." Some come on right away, others crop up later in life. And then there’s the fear of recurrence.
"There’s a thread of anxiety that lurks through life," says Eileen Saffran, who runs the nonprofit cancer support center The Gathering Place. "Even in the best of circumstances when somebody says you’re in remission or that you’re quote cancer free, there’s this gnawing kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop," she says.
Cancer survivors need a way to get back in control and adjust to a new norm, says Saffron. Exercise can be great tool to reduce fatigue and build back strength. Eating well is another way people can help their body handle the aftermath of the cancer treatments and it may also help prevent recurrence.
For Renee Thomas, whom I met up with on her 60th birthday, walking is good therapy. So is chai tea. She’s learning how to weather the bad moments and know that they will pass. "I look outside and say well it’s raining—or it’s a blizzard out there—and I tell myself that it will get better, each month it will get better...It’s a never ending story, never ending story. I look for that little silver lining and I’ll find it and grab on hold of it and keep going, it’s hard but I keep going," she says.
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