University of Colorado Gynecologic Cancer Specialists | Denver

Cancer Survivor Services

Cancer survivor services at a glance

  • A cancer survivor is any person who has a history of cancer. The term applies to someone living with, through and beyond cancer.
  • A survivor can be a person who has no signs of cancer after treatment as well as any person who is still going through treatment.
  • The way we approach care and services for cancer survivors is related to the common thread for all that life is different after a cancer diagnosis.
  • Issues relevant to cancer survivorship include dealing with the cancer treatment and its effects, changes in the patient’s outlook and relationships, and issues of follow-up care.

Who is a cancer survivor?

There are nearly 15 million people living in the United States who have been diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) the rate of people who are diagnosed with cancer each year has gone down. At the same time, the overall number of people living longer after learning they have cancer has gone up and so has the number of people cured of their cancer. Both groups of people are known as cancer survivors.

Some cancer patients don’t like the term cancer survivor, whether they are cancer free or still in treatment. This is understandable, as not everyone wants to be associated with the disease. In addition to people with a history of cancer, cancer survivorship also impacts friends, family and loved ones who have gone through the experience with the patient.

Around two-thirds of people diagnosed with cancer are expected to live at least five years after the diagnosis. This is in part due to finding cancer earlier through better testing to diagnose it, as well as having better cancer treatments. As the number of people who live well beyond their cancer diagnosis grows, so have the resources applied to cancer survivorship.

Oncologists sometimes break down cancer survivorship into three stages that influence the type of cancer survivor care the patient may need. Acute survivorship care begins at diagnosis and focuses on the treatment. Extended survivorship continues after treatment ends. Permanent survivorship is the situation years after cancer treatment when it is unlikely to return and focuses on long-term effects.

The needs of these cancer survivors differ, particularly between those who are cancer free and those still in treatment.

Cancer survivors in treatment and out of treatment

For patients still in treatment, our cancer survivorship care involves physical and emotional help. On the physical side, we help cancer survivors in treatment remain active, maintain proper nutrition and learn how to care for different aspects of their health and bodily changes due to the effects of treatment.

Some patients with serious or life-threatening cancers may also benefit from our palliative care services. Our palliative care team works with the patient’s oncologist to provide an additional layer of support and focuses on optimizing quality of life. Integration of palliative care into cancer care can be appropriate at any stage of a cancer survivor’s illness.

On the emotional side, cancer survivors in treatment may need support in coping with the diagnosis and treatment. Counseling and support groups can help cancer survivors maintain a healthy emotional outlook throughout treatments, including possible changes in relationships. Some of the issues cancer survivors may face are addressed below.

After ending treatment and being free of cancer, patients can feel like they need to transition back into a new way of life. Post-treatment many patients are relieved and happy to be finished with treatment. But at the same time they are worried and sad, because it is common to think about what happens if the cancer returns or if there are lasting effects from treatment.

The physicians and staff of CU Gynecologic Oncology are here for our patients through the whole journey of cancer, from diagnosis through remission. While our expertise in oncology makes us better at treating the disease, our realization of the needs of cancer survivors makes us better at caring for people with cancer.

Emotional support and counseling

It is normal to want to reach out to talk to someone before, during or after treatment for cancer. It can be difficult to find friends or family members who understand the changes the patient is going through.

Talking to a professional can be a productive way to work through the sadness, stress and anxiety that are often associated with treatment and recovery. It can also be helpful to talk with others going through a similar situation. A support group is a great way to meet and talk with others working through comparable struggles and emotions.

If you are a patient with CU Gynecologic Oncology, ask your physician about a referral to the cancer center psychologists.

Patients and their caregivers should make sure to take the steps to seek help for any emotional and psychological symptoms. These symptoms provided by the American Cancer Society include:

  • Isolation from friends and family
  • Increasing family conflict
  • Problems adjusting to changes from treatments
  • Worrying about quality of life
  • Difficulty making care decisions.

Sexual health and fertility

Treatment for many cancers can have lasting effects on a cancer survivor’s sexual health. Women with gynecologic cancers may have had surgery that physically altered areas involved in sexual activity. Treatment could have affected nerves that alter the woman’s physical response to sex. Treatments also can bring up psychological issues.

See how Anne and her husband remained intimate even after she lost her vagina in treatment for ovarian cancer >>

Treatment can also affect fertility. Depending on the treatment, the fertility impairment could be temporary or permanent. Prior to treatment patients interested in bearing children should talk with their doctor to learn about options for fertility preservation.

Returning to the workplace

Getting back to work and a regular work schedule is a large step to getting back to a normal routine after cancer. During treatment most patients stop working or drastically reduce their work load. When returning to work, they may find that coworkers want to help but do not know how. Coworkers also may treat the cancer survivor differently compared with before the cancer.

Prior to returning to work it may be helpful for cancer survivors to anticipate questions from coworkers and decide in advance how to answer them. Support groups and counseling can provide assistance with this.

Improving health after treatment

After treatment ends cancer survivors have a follow-up care plan that includes checkups and cancer screenings. The frequency of appointments and types of screening tests depend on the type of cancer. It’s crucial that the patient follow the doctor’s specific care advice.

Follow-up care can help find new or returning cancers early when treatment has the highest chance of success.

Patients can reduce their risk of the cancer recurring, or of a new type of cancer, by making healthy lifestyle choices that include:

  • Keeping a healthy weight
  • Being physically active
  • Limiting alcohol use
  • Avoiding tobacco
  • Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables
  • Avoiding excess exposure to ultraviolet rays from tanning beds and the sun.

Many survivors are surprised when some side effects linger beyond treatment. These are called long-term side effects. Survivors also can have late effects that develop months or even years after treatment. If patients notice any changes in their body, it is important to mention that to the oncologist.

Side effects are different for each patient, even for those who had the same type of cancer and treatment. Common side effects survivors mention include:

  • Eye problems
  • Hearing loss
  • Heart problems
  • Lung problems
  • Joint changes
  • Bone loss
  • Lymphedema
  • Mouth and dental changes
  • Trouble paying attention or remembering things.

Patients should discuss any issues noticed between appointments with their doctor. The doctor can look for ways to alleviate symptoms and look to see if there is a larger cause behind the symptoms.

University of Colorado Gynecologic Cancer Specialists | Denver