For many cancer patients, completing their treatment – be it chemotherapy, surgery or radiation therapy – marks the beginning of a new phase in life. Many cancer survivors often receive advice on changing their lifestyles to reduce the chances of recurrence. But for some patients, things are not what they used to be. We chat with Parkway Cancer Centre’s Senior Consultant Medical Oncology, Dr Tan Wu Meng, on how cancer survivors can prepare for a “new normal” post-treatment.
Trips to the doctor
Follow-up visits with the doctor are common and can be frequent depending on the individual’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.
Changes in the body
Physical changes are a common side effect of cancer treatment. Sometimes it takes extra time to get used to these bodily changes. While it helps to know your body, it’s important that you don’t let yourself be overcome with fear with every minor sign or symptom. If there is something you’re 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 life after cancer. Survivors should avoid smoking or consuming alcohol. This will help to lower the overall risk of cancer, as well as other chronic diseases. A change in diet can also be helpful. Nutritionists often recommend eating sufficient plant-based foods such as beans, vegetables and fruits. Choose foods that are low in salt and fat, and avoid processed foods. Many patients prefer to eat home-cooked meals as they can control the level of salt, oil and sugar used.
A regular exercise regime is also important. Moderate exercise such as walking, cycling or swimming for about 30 minutes a day has been associated with reduced cancer recurrence, alleviation of anxiety and depression, as well as an improvement of mood, self-esteem and energy levels. Some survivors have explored complementary or alternative treatments like Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), too. Nonetheless, patients should always consult their doctors before taking any products or treatments.
Consider joining support groups, which are often set up by hospitals, trained professionals or cancer survivors themselves. These groups allow patients to talk about their feelings with fellow participants who may be facing similar challenges. Sharing experiences can also help patients to better manage practical issues at home, work or school.
Preparing to return to work
Cancer treatments often take time away from work. It can be a time of anxiety for the entire household, especially if the patient is the breadwinner of the family. Before going back to employment, start thinking ahead about the possible issues, such as physical demands at work or the type of follow-up care needed. It’s best to take it easy 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, requesting a different position within the company may help with the recovery journey.
Returning to work can help 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 workday.
Some cancer patients may also suffer from frequent memory loss after treatment. To overcome this, start making a list of tasks you need to complete or set alarms to remind you of important meetings and deadlines. It’s important to take some time to prepare yourself before you head back to work and maintain a self-care plan once you start.
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