We often frame discussions of cancer in terms of war. We talk about “cancer battles,” in which “winning” means surviving. Yet just like literal warfare, cancer can leave survivors with scars – physical and emotional. Many real cancer survivors don’t always feel victorious after beating cancer. They may struggle with the physical and psychological consequences of the illness. Cancer survivors have an increased risk of suffering serious consequences after their bout with cancer, including recurrences, physical complications, and anxiety disorders.
The Risk of Recurrence
With some forms of cancer, even after successful treatment, there’s a risk that the disease could return. Certain cancer treatments, while necessary to shrink or get rid of one tumor, can make it more likely that patients will suffer cancer of a different variety in the future.
Cancer can recur even after it has been surgically removed or treated with chemotherapy or radiation – and it can happen years after the initial illness. Photo Credit: Tdvorak, Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons license).
For many cancer survivors, life after the illness means always wondering if and when the cancer could return, and if they will be able to survive another battle. This “living with the unknown,” as the American Cancer Society refers to it, is emotionally difficult for patients – and their families – who have already been through something so traumatic.
The exact risk of cancer recurrence differs from patient to patient, depending on individual factors and the type of cancer, the kind of treatments used to beat it the first time, and the length of time it’s been since that first cancer battle. Even this complexity, this difficulty in understanding the exact risks, can be frustrating and exhausting for patients who want nothing more than to move on with their lives, but who worry constantly that their cancer will return.
For many patients, the consequences of cancer treatments include many serious risks. Some may take years to manifest, and they can be as serious as the cancer itself was.
According to Mayo Clinic, late effects of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery can include:
- Heart problems
- Infertility and early menopause
- Nerve damage
- Lung disease or reduced lung capacity
- Intestinal problems
- Liver problems
- Skin changes
- Tooth decay
- Lymphedema, or swelling in the limbs
- Memory problems
Like cancer, some of these complications can be painful and life-threatening. When faced with the immediate threat of cancer, procedures like radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery are life-saving – but down the road, their consequences for patients who survive can be serious.
Emotional and Psychological Scars
Not every result of a cancer battle is physical. Some effects have an impact on mental, emotional, and psychological health, too.
Having cancer is incredibly stressful for patients and their families. There’s the physical pain, the worry about what the future holds, the losses – both the big ones and seemingly small ones – that they experience. Even if the cancer is cured, the stress doesn’t magically disappear. Patients and their families still have to live with the memories and the fear.
A number of cancer survivors, and caregivers, suffer from an anxiety disorder called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or from cancer-related post-traumatic stress (PTS), a similar but less severe disorder. Like survivors of military combat and violence, cancer survivors may suffer symptoms like flashbacks, difficulty sleeping, loss of interest in enjoyable activities, and feelings of hopelessness, anger, and fear, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
Fortunately, a lot of cancer survivors “are able to cope and don’t develop full PTSD,” according to the American Cancer Society – but still, many do suffer this full-blown disorder. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons (public domain).
Some patients must seek treatment, like medications, psychotherapy, or help from a support group, to manage their symptoms.
What Does It Mean to Be a Survivor?
With more than 14,000,000 cancer survivors scattered across the country, the sheer number of patients who have “won” their cancer battles is indeed something to celebrate. Yet that massive number of survivors is also a reason for concern. These survivors still need support, and some of them simply aren’t getting it. They have been through a difficult, exhausting, frightening battle. They need care for the foreseeable future to regain and maintain the best physical and psychological health possible – not just immediately following their bout with cancer, but often for the rest of their lives.
Are medical professionals, cancer research and awareness organizations, and their personal support systems – laypeople like us, their family members and friends – doing enough to help cancer survivors cope with the complications and changes in their health and their lives?
Perhaps more importantly, what more can we do to make a difference in the lives of survivors?