Parkway Cancer Centre’s Dr Tan Wu Meng looks at how cancer patients can prepare for a “new normal” after completing treatment.
For many cancer patients, finishing the treatment marks the beginning of a new phase in life.
Having come out of treatment, many cancer survivors will receive advice on changing lifestyles to reduce the chances of recurrence. But for some patients, things are not what they used to be. There can be a journey of discovery and acceptance of the “new normal” after treatment.
Trips to the doctor
Follow-up visits with the doctor are common and can be frequent depending on the individual patient’s condition. Some patients may need regular blood tests, MRI or CT scans, or even an endoscopy. Generally, if the patient’s condition remains well, the regular reviews can become less frequent over time.
Coping with body changes
Patients’ bodies may have changed as a result of treatment. Sometimes it takes extra time to get used to these changes.
It is understandable to be worried after a cancer scare. It helps to know your body, but do not let yourself be overcome with fear after every slight body change, sign or symptom. If there is something you are worried about, let your doctor know so that further checks can be done.
Staying on top of your health
Consider coming up with a wellness plan for your-life-after-cancer treatment.
Survivors should stop smoking (and not start if they do not smoke) and avoid alcohol. This can lower the overall risk of cancer, and also helps to reduce the risk of other chronic diseases.
A change in diet can be helpful. Nutritionists often recommend having sufficient plant-based foods such as beans, vegetables and fruits. Choose foods which are low in salt and low in fat, and avoid processed foods.
Many patients prefer to eat home-cooked meals after treatment as they can control the level of salt, oil and sugar used.
A regular exercise regime also benefits the survivor. Moderate exercise such as walking, cycling or swimming for about half an hour a day has been associated with reduced cancer recurrence, alleviation of anxiety and depression, as well as improving the survivors’ mood, self-esteem and energy level.
Survivors may be curious about complementary or alternative medication after treatment, including using supplements or vitamins. Some survivors have explored Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) too. Patients should always consult their doctors before taking any products or treatments.
Survivors can also consider joining support groups. These groups may be set up by hospitals, trained professionals or cancer survivors themselves. Such support and counselling groups allow patients to talk about their feelings with fellow participants who may be facing similar challenges such as body image or relationship issues as they do. By sharing experiences, they also help patients to better manage practical issues at home, at work or school.
Preparing to go back to work
Cancer treatment can mean time away from work. It can be a time of anxiety for the whole household, especially if the patient is the breadwinner of the family.
When a cancer survivor needs to return to work, it can help if one starts thinking ahead early on. How soon one should return to the job will depend on the long-term side effects of the illness and treatment; also the type of follow-up care needed; as well as the physical demands at work.
It is best to start gently when you first return to work and, if possible, ask your employer to make arrangements so that you can ease back into a full-time routine. In some cases, having a different position within the company may help with the recovery journey.
There are benefits when cancer survivors return to work. It can improve your self- confidence, while strengthening social links with colleagues and business partners.
However, some cancer survivors may experience fatigue, cognitive problems and even pain, at times. To overcome fatigue, do some light exercise daily and take more short breaks throughout the work day.
Some cancer patients may suffer from more frequent memory loss after treatment. To overcome this, start making lists of tasks you need to complete or set alarms to remind you of important meetings and deadlines.
A key thing to note about going back to work is to take some time to prepare yourself before you head back to work and to maintain a self-care plan once you start.