How to Stay Healthy After Cancer

Lidia Schapira, MD, FASCO; 2015-2021 Cancer.Net Editor in Chief
October 28, 2020
Lidia Schapira, MD, FASCO

I try to pack helpful advice into every follow-up visit I have with patients, focusing on little tips that help foster healthy lifestyles. This has long been my practice. Even as a brand-new oncologist, I felt it was important to take the time to talk with my patients about life after cancer. I have always tried to understand how each person can make small changes in their habits to protect their future health. After a diagnosis of cancer, a person may be more open to change, and that is why doctors and family caregivers seize the opportunities afforded by these moments.

Yet I have also learned that it is not so easy to stick with one’s resolution to do better or change. This is something we can all appreciate, having broken dozens of New Years’ promises in our lifetimes. People need to be ready to implement behavioral changes, such as eating more vegetables, stopping a lifelong habit of smoking, or reducing stress through active relaxation training. Health coaches and primary care doctors are valuable allies in helping people set their own goals and then follow through at a pace that feels comfortable. Nutrition and eating are often top-of-mind concerns for cancer survivors, and here, too, it may be worthwhile to seek the counsel of a registered dietitian who can help customize a diet that is tasty and easy to follow.

At the end of cancer treatment, people are often confused about who will coordinate their care. Cancer survivors have long spoken about feeling lost in the transition from active cancer care to primary care, and they may be confused about the roles that various clinicians play in their long-term care. For example, “Who will order the next mammogram?” is a question I hear from my patients as a specialist in breast cancer. Others may have similar questions, or there may even be confusion about where to get the next flu shot. In extreme cases, people describe feeling as though they are being “bounced” from 1 doctor to another. This reflects the lack of integration between cancer care and primary care in many settings.

Taking an active role and speaking directly to each doctor may help cancer survivors solve misunderstandings, reduce tension, and maintain control over their care. This is even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when the majority of routine visits are taking place through phone or video.

We can all learn from cancer survivors who are doing well and thriving. But at the same time, we can recognize that many have significant levels of anxiety about their cancer returning or advancing, the cost of care, or how to manage the long-term side effects of treatment. Concerns vary between individuals and according to the type of treatment received, but all people living with cancer benefit from feeling informed and empowered.

It takes effort and preparation to handle the complexities of cancer treatment and then change one’s focus to staying healthy after cancer. But maintaining a healthy lifestyle after cancer is an important part of survivorship. Cancer.Net provides people with high-quality information on getting and staying healthy that is reviewed and approved by experts. Learn more about healthy living both during and after cancer.

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