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Cancer... AFTER the Treatment Ends

11. October 2012

My oncologist smiled broadly as he entered the treatment room.  “Congratulations, Carol,” he exclaimed. “You’re now considered cancer-free!” While his words elicited a sense of relief and gratitude, I couldn’t help feeling a little empty and sad as I walked to my car. 

It’s been nearly a year since my diagnosis, surgeries and treatment…a difficult year, but the worst is over, right?  I should be happy, optimistic about the future and grateful to God for each new day.  Most days that’s the case but some days, I’m ashamed to say, it’s still hard. 

I take comfort knowing I’m not alone.  In fact, there’s new front in breast cancer – after the treatment ends.  Many women among the growing ranks of breast cancer survivors face long-term issues that are often overlooked.

Here’s what one woman had to say: “The second-hardest phase – after the initial diagnosis – is the minute your treatment ends.”  The 43-year old, 10-year breast cancer survivor adds, “The reality sets in that you have to live with this the rest of your life and the safety net is gone.  That’s when you really freak out.”

Amen to that, sister! Despite all the pink ribbons and billions spent on breast cancer research, there’s surprisingly little data on issues that linger or emerge in the years after treatment ends.  Although the odds of relapse fall with time, truth is, they never completely disappear.

Some patients who had treatment years ago are encountering delayed side effects such as heart problems, nerve damage, osteoporosis and like ABC’s Robin Roberts – secondary cancers.

Nearly 90 percent of respondents to a survey conducted by Cancer Support Community said they had at least one physical, psychological or social problem.  Mentioned most frequently were fatigue, sexual dysfunction and sleep issues.  Twenty-four percent of those surveyed reported being depressed – about twice the national rate.

More research needs to be done to help women, including distress screening and studies on the long-term side affects of treatments…but the upshot is pretty clear.

As with many chronic illnesses, a woman’s life is forever changed after a breast cancer diagnosis. 

So, all of you courageous breast cancer survivors out there…congratulations!  There’s reason to celebrate.  But as you bravely smile and are grateful to be cancer-free…count me among those who understand the tiny hint of caution in your eyes.

Cancer isn’t over when the treatment ends.

 

Contact Carol by emailing her at Carol@palomarhealth.org.