One in four South Africans will be affected by cancer in their lifetime through diagnosis of a family member, friend, colleague or themselves. Look around you and count the people sitting in your office – one in four is a high statistic.
Receiving a cancer diagnosis is terrifying and comes with a multitude of questions – Why me? What did I do wrong? Will treatment work? Where to next?
The treatment will be exhausting – mentally, physically and financially – and incredibly challenging. Then, you hear those words: “You are in remission.”
It’s been a long, tumultuous journey and you’re finally at the end of it – or so you thought. Unfortunately, you may still have a long road ahead of you.
Remission does not mean the end
“Most cancer survivors are looking forward to leaving the cancer behind and regaining a sense of normality in their lives,” Dr Jill Harris, an oncologist at Cancercare, said at the Cancer Survivors’ Summit held in September 2016.
“But making the transition into the period after treatment can bring new, unexpected challenges, including long-term side effects and ongoing medical costs.”
Guest speaker at the event, Professor Melvyn Freeman, Chief Director: non-communicable Diseases at the Department of Health said, “Surviving cancer is a process of psychological graduation involving personal growth.”
Research shows that about three in every 10 people who recover from cancer will face financial difficulties. Many cancer survivors avoid or delay medical care, miss their follow-up appointments and stop taking medications because they are anxious about costs.
Dr Harris says oncologists should consider offering more economical options with similar outcomes to patients. As a patient, you need to be involved in the decision-making process, especially when it comes to the treatment costs involved.
Fear of recurrence
It’s perfectly normal for cancer survivors to feel anxious or scared about the cancer returning, especially in their first year following treatment.
Dr Harris suggests that survivors do a genetic test to determine their susceptibility to relapse – if they qualify.
“I never asked to do this journey, but a journey it became. And it didn’t finish after treatment either,” testicular cancer survivor David Scott told Health24.
“When you have a shadowy ‘death date’, no matter what the prognosis, you still believe you could be the percentile that doesn’t make it. Or that your body does not respond to chemo.”
Persistent fatigue is a long-term effect experienced by 30% to 40% of patients cured of cancer and can continue for years following treatment, says the National Cancer Institute in the US.
Exercise is one of the more successful treatment options to help address cancer-related fatigue. Dr Harris says the combination of exercise, cognitive therapy and coping skills training are a good way to combat cancer-related fatigue.
"It's also important to remember that everybody's treatment and recovery are different, so you shouldn't compare yourself with other patients or you may end up feeling hopeless,” breast cancer survivor Wilma van der Bijl previously told Health24.
“I never thought I'd bounce back but, although it takes time, you come through the experience and regain your energy and lust for life."
Life after cancer
Cancercare believes cancer survivors should be celebrated and will host its annual Cancer Survivors Day in September 2017. Cancer survivors need ongoing support.
“The goal is to give us the opportunity as a practice to acknowledge the people who are treated with us and to recognise the journey they have undertaken with cancer,” says Linda Greeff, oncology social worker, Cancercare Rondebosch.
“It is also a chance for us to raise awareness around the fact that this illness can be treated and that people can live long and productive lives with cancer.”
The day is designed to break the stigma that cancer is a life-threatening illness, while sharing inspirational cancer survivors' stories. “Being around other cancer survivors inspires and motivates people,” says Greeff.
“The feedback we have received every year has been overwhelmingly positive. People feel that they are not alone in their experiences and they use this as a chance to learn from one another. It is also a special experience for our treatment teams as they get to connect with their patients and see how they are getting on with their lives.”
Greeff concludes, “From the moment you receive your diagnosis, you are a survivor, and this day is for you.”
For more information or if you'd like to attend the Cancer Survivors Day, you can email Joleen Retief.
All images provided by iStock.