Adding Life to Your Years
I see a number of patients each week in my oncology practice. Many are in various stages of cancer treatment, but others are returning for a regular check-up after completing what was often an intense course of therapy designed to maximize the chances for cure or, at least, disease control. Some are cured, some are not, but for all the experience of having cancer, there are consequences that may last a lifetime.
Many patients talk about how their lives have changed as a result of their disease. These changes create a “new normal” that patients adjust to when they complete treatment. I enjoy the opportunity to see all of my patients, but always I am inspired by the “thrivers”—the people who have embraced their new normal and kicked it up a notch or two.
Patients thrive on various tracks. Some may go from couch potatoes to ultra-marathoners; others may volunteer at their community cancer centers and become part of other patients’ support networks. Thriving can mean finding new hobbies and interests, or it can be as simple as living in the moment.
Cancer treatments can change a person in any number of ways, some of which are outward and easily noticed. Treatments may result in changes to a patient’s physical appearance or cause side effects like lymphedema or hormonal changes. Some patients are motivated to make lifestyle changes that help reduce their risk of cancer returning such as quitting tobacco, starting a regular exercise program and eating a healthier diet.
Other changes are more psychological in nature. A common worry is that the cancer may return, a fear that lingers in the back of many patients’ minds. Many patients deal with a sense of loss or loneliness when their active treatment ends. Even though our community cancer centers allow patients to stay close to the critical support of family and friends, patients have created schedules around doctors’ appointments and treatment sessions. They have also bonded with their fellow patients, their caregivers, nurses and physicians, but won’t be seeing them as regularly. I value close relationships with my patients, but one of the greatest joys in cancer treatment is seeing a patient transition back into life outside of the practice.
Our oncologists and healthcare teams can help maintain the positive changes and work to minimize the more unpleasant ones. Support groups, as well as consistent encouragement and companionship from loved ones, can help make the transition to survivorship easier.
Our community-based treatment setting gives our patients a big advantage because they are already near their support networks. Starting to make lifestyle changes while they complete treatment makes those positive changes easier to stick with in the “new normal.” Many survivors feel a great—and well-earned—sense of accomplishment and are well on their way to thriving.
As a community-based practice, my colleagues and I are deeply invested in McAllen, in our friends and neighbors, and in our community’s well-being. Our patients don’t just disappear once they leave our clinic; they remain fellow members of our community. I hope that when our paths cross, I find them thriving.
By Alvaro Restrepo, MD, Texas Oncology–McAllen