Tips and inspiration for cancer survivorship
At VCU Massey Cancer Center, we believe that cancer survivorship begins at the point of diagnosis. In honor of National Cancer Survivors Month, we're sharing advice and goals for survivorship care for those who may be nearing the end of their treatments and are in remission. And to help inspire others on various points along the survivorship spectrum, we included testimony from some of our current and former patients.
Tips for survivorship care planning
By Masey Ross, M.D., hematology-oncology fellow at VCU Massey Cancer Center
There are several goals of survivorship care, including preventing new and recurrent cancers, developing a tailored strategy for surveillance and follow up, addressing any residual or late effects of cancer treatment and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Below are some general tips adapted from the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) Survivorship Guidelines that might help get you thinking about how best to achieve these goals:
- As you are nearing completion of the active treatment portion of your cancer care, ask your cancer care provider to create a summary outlining the treatment you received as well as the dates of treatment. Keep a copy for yourself and also distribute copies to your other doctors (primary care provider, specialists).
- Some chemotherapy agents and radiation treatments can have side effects that persist or occur later in life, after your therapy has finished. These are known as late effects or late toxicities. Having a summary of your prior treatments can help your doctors monitor for late toxicities.
- It is important for cancer survivors to keep up with regular cancer screening. In some cases, having a diagnosis of a particular type of cancer can increase the risk of developing a second cancer. This can be due to genetic susceptibilities or to shared exposures. For example, patients with a smoking history who are diagnosed with lung cancer may be at increased risk of developing head and neck cancer due to the damage smoking causes to the aerodigestive tract. Ask your oncologist or primary care doctor about tailoring your cancer screening.
- It is important to achieve and maintain a healthy lifestyle. Physical activity and exercise regimens should be tailored in conjunction with your doctor to account for your abilities and preferences. General recommendations are to strive to engage in daily physical activity. Take the stairs or park in the back of the parking lot to increase your daily activity. If able, shoot for 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week. Examples of moderate exercise include ballroom dancing, biking on level ground, gardening, or brisk walking, while examples of vigorous exercise include hiking uphill, playing basketball, or swimming laps. Try to participate in strength or resistance training twice weekly and avoid sitting for long periods. Try to maintain a diet high in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains and limit your intake of red meats and refined sugars. It is important to maintain a healthy weight. Limit alcohol intake. If you are currently a smoker, try to quit smoking. Don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor about the best way to approach smoking cessation as they may have some ideas about behavior changes or medications that can help. Practice sun safety. Wear a sunscreen with SPF of at least 30 that is water resistant. Wear hats and long sleeves, and avoid direct sun exposure during peak hours whenever possible.
- It is not uncommon for survivors to experience anxiety, worry or mood changes that persists beyond cancer diagnosis and treatment. If you experience these feelings, talk to your doctor. Depending on the severity, there are a variety of interventions that may be helpful including support groups, individual counseling, meditation, creative therapies like art or music, or others.
Please talk to your doctor for specific recommendations about your survivorship care. It is our hope that with implementation of some of these practices, you will live a long, healthy and fulfilling life.
In 2012, Keisha Harris was living in Hawaii with her then-fiancé when her life went from a dream to a nightmare. What was originally diagnosed as a kidney infection turned out to be stage 4 cervical cancer that had spread to her kidney and spinal cord. After enduring countless treatments, she moved back to the East Coast to be closer to my family.
“The treatments had damaged my organs so badly that I had to undergo a very risky procedure called a total pelvic exenteration, which involved the removal of my gastrointestinal, urinary and reproductive organs,” said Harris. “Without the procedure, I was told I had less than seven weeks to live.”
Harris took recovery one step at a time and in 6 months she was back at the gym. “I encourage others to draw positivity from those around them and to never loose hope,” she says.
Harris has written a book about her experience called Warrior 917: Lessons Before Living, and she volunteers regularly at VCU Massey Cancer Center.
Carrie Persing was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer in May of 2014, the same weekend she participated in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. Due to a prior suspicious biopsy and a family history of breast cancer, she was having biopsies taken every six months.
Persing elected to undergo a double mastectomy, followed by microsurgical reconstruction. The surgery lasted 15 hours, but she is now cancer free almost three years later.
“I feel fortunate that my cancer was caught early when others have had to endure so much. I encourage everyone to be vigilant; to talk to their doctor about a personalized screening plan based on their family’s health; and to ask questions and play a role in determining the right course of care if they are diagnosed,” she says.
Tim Sanderson has been diagnosed with cancer twice. More than 20 years ago, he was treated for a tumor on one of his salivary glands. Then, nearly 10 years later after becoming a father to twins, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
“Both experiences were terrifying, but I will never forget the incredible support that I received form everyone around me,” says Sanderson.
He has now been cancer free for nearly 10 years. He started running in an effort to be healthier and get back in touch with his body. He also got involved with the Cancer Hope Network, which pairs cancer survivors with patients currently undergoing treatment.
“I encourage everyone to listen to their body and see their doctor if they think anything is out of the ordinary,” he says.
Anita Whitlow was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer in December of 2014, and she has had a rough journey. While she had plenty of reasons to give up, she still considers herself blessed and chooses to stay strong and remain positive.
“Nobody ever expects to get colorectal cancer, but you need to get screened if you’re over 50 so you can catch it early. And if you think something is wrong, don’t be afraid to get a second opinion. If you do have cancer, be strong, stay positive and fight,” says Whitlow. “Don’t give up, don’t skip appointments and always make sure you ask questions and follow up with your doctor.”
Roberta Carter has been fighting breast cancer since she was first diagnosed in 2003.
“I have had several recurrences, but I choose to be positive and trust in my care team at VCU Massey Cancer Center. I’ve learned throughout the years that you must stay focused, determined, unmovable, and remain on the course to the finish line,” says Carter.
Carter tries to use her experience to help others who are going through the similar situations. “When you’re first diagnosed you can feel secluded, so I try to open the door a little bit to let people know there is hope and to keep the faith,” she says.
Donna Sarver was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in December of 2011 despite having never smoked. “It was a shock. I was in disbelief when I heard the cancer had already spread throughout my body,” she says.
Her oncologist ordered a test and found her cancer was caused by a rare genetic mutation. Fortunately, there was a drug that targeted this mutation and after only a few treatments she went from barely being able to breathe to feeling almost normal.
“I am not cured, but my cancer is being controlled by my current treatments. I have been able to see my son and daughter graduate high school and start college,” says Sarver. “I’ve come to realize that every day is truly a blessing, and I plan to use my energy to spread love and happiness.”