Essential Lifestyle Choices for Cancer Survivors

In 1996, cyclist Lance Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Nine years later, in 2005, Armstrong won his seventh consecutive Tour de France. His brave, successful quest for a comeback helped change the way the world looks at cancer.

The first question after a cancer diagnosis is usually, "Am I going to die?" The next question might well be, "How should I be living now?"

Even if you can't return to top physical form as Armstrong did, life as a cancer survivor can be as rich and rewarding as you decide to make it. In fact, increased awareness of mortality is all some people need to feel more alive than ever.

"Most cancer survivors do make the transition from facing death to facing life," says Mary McCabe, R.N., M.A., director of the Cancer Survivorship Program at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. "For some people it takes weeks or months; for other people it takes a year or more, depending on the type of treatment they had, their age and any other medical problems they are facing.

"What's important," McCabe adds, "is that you ultimately progress from saying 'I have cancer' to 'I had cancer.'"

According to McCabe, the following steps can help a cancer survivor return to a new normal.

Manage your symptoms

Be proactive in dealing with any long-term aftereffects of radiation or chemotherapy. For example, your doctor can provide helpful advice on how to deal with fatigue or bring your weight back to a more normal level.

Don't give up on physical activity. Recent studies reveal that a moderate exercise program not only can improve physical stamina, it also can lift the psychological well-being of people who are feeling fatigued well after treatment has ended, McCabe notes.

Plan for future health

It's very important to stay on top of scheduled doctor visits and other ongoing care. To do so:

  • Understand your plan of care. Make sure your doctor explains clearly what to expect. How often will you need to return for doctor visits? What tests will you need? What major issues can you expect to face in the next year or two, and how should you deal with them? If your oncologist recommends frequent checks for cancer recurrence or lifestyle changes, take the advice seriously.

  • Don't neglect other recommended cancer screenings. "A woman successfully treated for melanoma should have a mammogram ... just like every other woman," McCabe says. You may think because you survived cancer you're done with the disease, when in fact you're at a higher risk for another primary cancer.

Start living again

Every cancer survivor should be asking: What can I do for myself? Some answers include:

  • Improve your nutrition. Make sure you're eating a well-rounded diet, with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

  • Develop a plan for physical activity that works for you, based on your physician's advice. "You may have to get into your exercise program gradually because of the way you feel, but your plan should be consistent and one you can maintain," McCabe suggests.

Avoid tobacco

Staying smoke-free is one of the most important things you can do for your health.

Rebuild relationships

Many people put their relationships on hold while they go through intensive treatments; restarting them can take effort.

"Often when the patient is finished treatment, everyone is ready for the person to be 100 percent back to normal," McCabe says. "It's very important to open up and talk with people during this period, so family and friends understand you still have a recovery phase to go through."

You may feel too tired to do the same activities, or you may have physical rehabilitation needs, or you may not be able to think as clearly as before. You also may have different priorities now; cancer can be a life-altering experience. Good communication can help others understand just where you're coming from.

Think about returning to work

Can you take on the same job again or assume a new role at work? Explore your available options. Returning to work at any level could make a big difference in feeling normal again.

Ask for help

"It's not a shortcoming for people to admit they need help in moving beyond the diagnosis and treatment," McCabe stresses. "The most important thing is to recognize when you're having trouble and ask for guidance."

Signs you may need help include: You constantly worry your cancer might return; you often feel anxious or depressed; you have physical limitations that keep you from doing what you did before your cancer treatment. Ask your personal care physician or internist for advice; or consider the services of a social worker, clinical psychologist, or psychiatrist. These professionals can help you sort out what you must adapt to from what you can deal with or eliminate.

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