Allison Moskowitz Duggan, LCSW, is an oncology social worker, clinical supervisor, and a program manager for the social work internship at CancerCare. She provides support services including counseling and support groups to children, teens, and adults who are impacted by cancer or have lost a loved one to cancer. As the program manager for the internship program, Allison helps train and support social work interns who are interested in the field of oncology.
While some treatments for cancer are short-term, such as surgery or a course of radiation therapy, there are also many people with cancer who will be prescribed a long-term medication for a variety of reasons, such as to treat the cancer or prevent the cancer from coming back. For example, people diagnosed with breast cancer who have hormone receptor-positive disease are often prescribed hormonal therapy medication for 5 to 10 years to lower the risk of the cancer coming back. Or, people with multiple myeloma might be prescribed maintenance chemotherapy and other long-term medications to slow cancer growth or spread.
Coping with the emotional impacts of taking long-term medication
No matter the reason that a person is prescribed long-term medication for cancer, knowing you may need to take a medication for years may come with certain emotional challenges. Some of these emotional challenges can include:
1: Realizing that treatment is still ongoing.
It may be difficult for some people to cope with the fact that their cancer treatment plan is ongoing instead of short-term and done. They may prefer to treat the cancer quickly to “get it over with” or put it past them, but this is not the reality for treating many types of cancer. In fact, treating some types of cancer can be viewed by some as managing a chronic illness, especially for certain cancers that are metastatic or have a high rate of recurrence.
2: Being reminded of your cancer diagnosis.
Taking medication long-term can serve as a frequent reminder for people of the cancer itself. It can be painful for some people to think of their cancer diagnosis every day and to cope with the feelings that accompany it. Some people may feel that this reminder is holding them back or preventing them from moving forward. Fortunately, many people diagnosed with cancer can still live very rewarding lives and do the things they want to do while taking long-term medication.
3: Dealing with medication side effects.
Taking any type of medication long-term can introduce the possibility of side effects, which can be another reminder of the diagnosis. These side effects can range in severity and in how much they impact a person’s quality of life. No matter the severity of the side effects, it is important to inform your health care team of any side effects that you experience so they can help you manage them and maximize your quality of life.
4: Grieving for your life before cancer.
Cancer is often a life-altering event that can cause both physical and emotional changes. People may find themselves longing for their past selves and their lives before cancer. For many, they may experience a shift in identity. Remember that it is normal to grieve the losses that are brought on by cancer. These may include the loss of identity as someone who does not take medication daily or the loss of certain physical functions caused by the medication’s side effects. To cope with these, it can be helpful to allow yourself space to grieve what is lost and feel the variety of emotions that may arise. It can also be helpful to express these emotions by talking to a loved one or journaling.
The shift in mindset needed to adjust to taking long-term medication may bring feelings of anger, frustration, sadness, and more. However, it can also be empowering to view the action of taking medication long-term as a way of taking control over your health and doing everything in your power to prioritize your health and well-being.
Dealing with daily difficulties of taking long-term medication
Taking medication over the long-term may come with practical challenges in addition to emotional ones. For some people, it can be difficult to remember to take a medication daily. Some medications also have restrictions around what a person can do while taking them, such as avoiding alcohol, so it may require lifestyle changes. Additionally, some medications can have expensive co-pays, which can lead to financial stress.
It is important to communicate with your health care team about any challenges, either practical or emotional, that you are experiencing from taking long-term medications. Your health care team can help you manage side effects or help find practical solutions. Sometimes, solving a practical challenge can lessen the emotional impact that it is having on you, which can improve your quality of life.
If you have been prescribed long-term medication, consider asking your health care team the following questions:
How long do I have to be on this medication?
Will there ever be an opportunity for me to take a break from taking this medication?
How have you seen other people who take this medication long-term cope with it?
Are there any other medications or dosage options I can take that may have fewer side effects?
Is there a medication option that is less expensive that I can take?
Finding support while taking long-term medication
If you are having difficulty coping with taking medication over the long term, remember that there is support available. Your health care team can help connect you with emotional support services. Some cancer centers offer counseling from a social worker or other clinicians, or they run support groups. You can also find or ask for a referral to a therapist who is trained in working with people with cancer or people with chronic illnesses.
Many people with cancer and long-term survivors get support from mentorship or peer matching programs, which allow you to connect with another individual who has similar lived experiences and can provide emotional support. Finally, health care staff may be able to recommend organizations that provide support services.
There are several national organizations that help people with cancer and survivors who are seeking support, including:
Psychology Today, which has a “Find a Cancer Therapist” search tool
Taking medication long-term can result in many practical and emotional challenges. Know that what you are experiencing is valid, and you are not alone in these thoughts and feelings. There is always support available to help you through this time.
The author has no relationships relevant to this content to disclose.