From Patient to Survivor and Beyond

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My friend Beverly was diagnosed with breast cancer five years ago at the age of 42. Beverly’s successful but year-long treatment plan included 16 weeks of chemotherapy, 28 radiation treatments and five
surgeries, including a mastectomy with reconstruction.

But that wasn’t the end of Beverly’s clash with cancer. Since then, she has undergone hormone therapy; she makes regular visits to her oncologist and monitors tumor markers to make sure the cancer hasn’t returned. Believe it or not, besides the initial diagnosis, the most challenging time for her was the year after treatment ended. “The shock had worn off, and my treatment was over. I was no longer focused on fighting cancer but instead I had to find a way to return to everyday life.”

Like Beverly, many people overcoming cancer–there are 17 million cancer survivors living in the United States alone–have their biggest fight ahead of them. Cancer treatments are not without aftermath, and survivors deal with the effects and emotions long after they have been declared cancer-free. The process of living with and through the disease is only a small part of the obstacles survivors face. Living beyond cancer is often an ongoing battle for survivors.

While many cancer survivors cope with help from friends and family, joining a support group can connect them with people who are going through similar experiences. Research shows that participating in a support group improves quality of life and enhances survival. Whether it’s online or face to face, survivors can talk about their feelings while dealing with practical problems such as treatment side effects and work or school issues. A helpful support group can pick up where medical treatment left off.

Whether someone considers themselves religious or not, having a serious illness can affect their spiritual outlook. After treatment, patients may struggle to understand why cancer happened to them in the first place. Spirituality or religion may help survivors find a new outlook on life; it also may allow them to be more likely to get practical help, such as assistance with meals, rides to doctor’s appointments and home care, because they are often connected to a community of people who share the same beliefs.

Many people say that overcoming cancer changed their focus on life to the present and they now concentrate on living each day to the fullest. Some try to understand what having cancer means to their lives now and concentrate on what they value most.

Making the transition from cancer treatment to survival can be tricky. After her cancer treatments ended, the support of friends and loved ones helped Beverly deal with the “after emotions,” but she’s quick to point out that she also took charge of her own survivorship. “Everyone must be their own advocate, since we know our bodies better than anyone else,” she says. “And even though my treatment team was amazing, I sought out second opinions and asked for continued screenings that related to my specific breast cancer gene.”

But what seemed to be the most important aspect of Beverly’s recovery was taking pen to paper and using her own words to heal. Determined to use her diagnosis in a positive way, she interviewed 40 women who survived breast cancer 20, 30, even 50 years after being diagnosed. Her book, Celebrating Life Decades after Breast Cancer, was written to offer inspiration to others, but completing it was Beverly’s own therapy. “I learned so much by interviewing these amazing women. Their stories of surviving breast cancer for decades gave me hope and strength in the challenging days ahead.”

As she wrote the pages for her book, Beverly envisioned supplying an inner circle of support to women of all ages and races. “Each woman I interviewed gave so much insight about why she believed she has thrived for years beyond diagnosis.” Surprising to her, though, was the women’s emotional response drawn out by reminiscing about the early days of diagnosis and treatment. “Women who had been diagnosed 20 to 50 years before would begin to cry when remembering the details of the day they were diagnosed and the fear of going through treatment.”

Most people endure some level of fear, anxiety or depression even after getting a clean bill of health, and everyone has their own way of dealing with it. For those who aren’t sure where to turn, practical advice is available online to help patients with day-to-day issues and coping with the physical and emotional changes of treatment. For more information, visit or call the National Cancer Information Center at 1-800-227-2345.

And as Beverly can attest, “It takes time after treatment ends to deal with the trauma of diagnosis and invasive procedures. Making the shift of focusing on living as opposed to not dying is imperative to moving on.” ■

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