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Life after cancer – the survivors’ journey 

Cancer continues to affect the lives of those it touches long after the disease has disappeared.

“As a survivor, you’re still dealing with the ramifications of treatment while grappling with what it means to have gone through this traumatic experience. This is a period of transition,” says Tom McNeil, a social worker with the Cape Breton Cancer Centre.

Life after cancer is often filled with conflicting emotions. “You are grateful and happy – and more appreciative. But you’re also afraid of a recurrence,” says Tom. “Then you feel guilty because you think you should feel grateful.”

“It is,” he adds, “a grieving process – for loss of a body part, loss of time from life. At the same time, survivors are grappling with who they are now. They see themselves differently.”

Life after cancerTom recently gave a presentation on this increasingly important issue as part of Cancer Care Nova Scotia’s Cancer Answers lecture series, which provides Nova Scotians with relevant, accurate and up-to-date information about cancer. In his presentation “After Cancer Treatment Then What?,” Tom, citing research from Magee and Scalzo, notes that there are four phases of recovery.

“Surviving cancer is a big deal: a big, wonderful, horrible, important, mundane, crazy, sad, and joyous long-running event.”

Cancer Survivor (quoted in Magee and Scalzo, 2007)


First there is the Inquiry Phase where survivors begin to recover a sense of self. This is followed by the Discovery Phase, recovering a sense of control, and the Growth Phase, recovering a sense of meaning. Finally, there is the Reflection Phase. This is where survivors recover a sense of the future.

The Canadian Partnership Against Cancer, together with Capital Health, the YMCA and the Canadian Cancer Society, delivers the Cancer Transitions Program, which many cancer survivors have found helpful. This free, two-and-a-half-hour, six-week program is designed to help cancer survivors make the transition from active treatment to post-treatment life. Facilitators and guest speakers discuss strategies for managing stress, eating healthy and managing health concerns. 

“Programs like Cancer Transitions and support groups can be a great help,” says Tom. “They allow you to talk about your experience with others who have been on a similar journey. They also help you focus on the future.”

That help often fills an important need for cancer survivors. “After the completion of treatment family and friends often think everything is okay and expect you to get on with life,” says Tom. “It’s not that simple. People who have walked in your shoes understand what you are going through and can be a tremendous source of empathy and inspiration.”

“Cancer,” he adds, “changes you, and it can change your relationship with friends and family. In many cases, these changes are positive.”

Insight and understanding are essential, stresses Tom. “Be informed about this. You have to try to regain a sense of control and autonomy.”
 
One technique Tom notes that Magee and Scalzo recommend is developing a personalized healing plan. This consists of two components: intentions and actions.

A statement of intent sets the stage for what follows. For example, a plan may state, “I want to focus my healing on … my physical health.” The intent may be to twofold: to improve your immune system and your physical strength. Action items will then spell out how you do this.

Another element of the plan may be, “I want to focus my healing efforts on … rekindling my passion and sense of purpose through creativity. The intent may be to reconnect through art. This could include writing a daily journal, painting three times a week, and walking the dog in the park to stimulate the creative juices.

“Every cancer survivor’s journey is different and it is unique to them,” says Tom, “but it is a journey many Nova Scotians and their families will take. It is important to understand what the road ahead may hold.”

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