Thanks to early detection and new treatments, more people are living longer with cancer. Cancer survivorship emphasizes the health, well-being and quality of life of people living with cancer. In cancer survivorship, healthcare providers monitor and manage the changes that people with cancer experience, from cancer diagnoses and treatment to end of life.
Having cancer may feel like running a hard race toward a finish line. People with cancer may keep the line in mind as they do their best to power through cancer’s challenges. Finishing treatment, however, may not always mean they’ve crossed it.
Some people are cancer-free after their initial treatment but don’t feel free from cancer. Other people still see the finish line, but they keep running into cancer. For others, the finish line they reach is very different from the one they expected.
That’s where cancer survivorship comes in. Cancer survivorship programs carry people through cancer, helping them to live as long as they can and with the best possible quality of life.
Thanks to early detection and newer treatments, more people are living longer with cancer. They’re also living with a range of issues that surface at different times. As a result, cancer survivorship experts have different ideas about what survivorship means.
Some think it has to do with where you are in your treatments, while others approach it based on the stage of cancer you have. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), survivorship starts the day someone receives a cancer diagnosis. It continues during and after treatment and on through the end of life.
Some experts see survivorship in three phases:
Other experts tie survivorship phases to cancer stages and recommend different support for each stage. In that scenario, there are three phases:
There’s no debate about the growing need for cancer survivorship support. According to the NCI, as of 2022, just over 18 million people in the United States are cancer survivors, meaning they have or had cancer. An estimated 8 million people are living 10 or more years after diagnosis. Over the next 10 years, experts anticipate a 24% increase in the number of people living with cancer.
Women and people assigned female at birth (AFAB) who have breast cancer represent the largest group of cancer survivors. Men and people assigned male at birth (AMAB) who have prostate cancer represent the next largest group. People with these types of cancer also represent the highest survival rates 10 years after diagnosis. More than 98% of men and people AMAB and more than 84% of women and people AFAB are alive 10 years after diagnosis.
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Most of the time, people are relieved to complete cancer treatment. Some people, though, got used to planning their days around treatment sessions and having regular contact with their healthcare providers. They’re thrilled to hear the “all-clear” but at a loss without their routine.
Many people — including people with cancer and their friends and family — assume the end of cancer treatment means the end of cancer-related concerns. Understandably, they and their families want to move on from cancer. More than anything, they want to get back to the lives they had before cancer.
But studies show people with cancer often can’t leave it behind. In general, people who are cancer survivors cope with a range of physical, emotional or psychological issues and social issues. Some people even develop cancer-related post-traumatic stress disorder.
People with cancer may have chronic issues or issues that crop up months or years after treatment is completed. These are late effects. Examples may include:
Like cancer treatment, cancer survivorship support is a team effort. Your cancer survivorship team may include:
Many healthcare organizations offer integrated cancer survivorship programs that coordinate resources such as occupational or exercise therapy. Sometimes, healthcare providers offer cancer survivorship programs tailored to specific cancers and issues.
In general, cancer survivorship centers on your care plan. Your care plan typically includes information about the type of kind of cancer for which you’re treated, your cancer treatments and recommendations for checkups and follow-up tests. Survivorship care plans vary based on the type of cancer someone has or had, but in general, survivorship care plans include:
That depends on your situation. Some people complete cancer treatment and, after time, may not need regular checkups and follow-up tests. They may be flourishing in their post-treatment life. People with ongoing cancer, second cancers or advanced cancers need continuous medical follow-up and different survivorship support.
You can make lifestyle changes that may reduce your risk of developing a recurring or second cancer. Those changes include:
Risk factors are activities and lifestyle choices that increase your cancer risk. Some examples include:
It’s important to eat well after cancer treatment, including practicing food safety. Some cancer treatments affect people’s immune systems and increase their risk of food poisoning. Some people have trouble eating after treatment. If that’s your situation, ask to speak with a dietitian. They’ll discuss your issues and come up with alternate foods for you to try.
There are many benefits to regular exercise. Exercise can help with:
Talk to your healthcare provider before tackling a new exercise routine. They may have recommendations based on your situation that help you get moving without putting yourself at risk of injury.
You can shape your cancer survivorship to be whatever you need it to be. For example, your cancer survivorship plan could emphasize healthy living after cancer treatment. You could get guidance on sharing information about your condition so people understand that you appreciate their concern and help as you move into your life after cancer.
Cancer survivorship is about your well-being during your cancer journey, particularly if you’re at the end of your journey.
If you have advanced cancer, cancer survivorship plans and conversations may emphasize managing your symptoms. Cancer survivorship conversations may shift to the kind of care you’d like toward the end of your life. For example, you may want to ask about palliative care or hospice. In palliative care, you receive care that complements your cancer treatment to improve your quality of life. Hospice is end-of-life care that helps you live your final days as you choose.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Cancer changes the lives of the people it touches. Cancer survivorship helps people learn to live with those life changes. By emphasizing health and wellness from diagnosis through end-of-life, cancer survivorship helps people with cancer preserve a good quality of life. Your healthcare providers understand how cancer can change your life. If you’re receiving cancer treatment or have completed treatment, your healthcare provider will create a cancer survivorship plan tailored to the changes you may encounter. They’ll also support you throughout those changes.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/03/2022.
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