Just as it takes time to come to terms with a cancer diagnosis, it also takes time to get used to the news that you've beaten it. According to Macmillan Cancer Support, there are currently as many as 1.8 million people who have survived cancer living in the UK.
The people I speak to, who are living with and beyond cancer regularly say that before diagnosis, the dis-ease was always one of their greatest health fears.
I think that's perhaps because few conditions can have such a significant impact on the life of the patient and those close to them. For some it can turn their world upside down. Treatment and its side-effects can cause nausea, fatigue, low mood; relationships may come under strain and intimacy with family and part-ners can be lost. Some of the patients we speak to feel they have to give up the hobbies and leisure ac-tivities that were 'part of them' and their identity. Financial concerns, changes to the body, the inability to work, and the loss of independence can all affect their outlook on life and sense of self.
For many, these fears don't evaporate when they finish treatment. We spoke to post-cancer patients and found that nearly a third (30%*) felt under pressure to 'bounce back' more quickly that they would have liked after treatment. For more than a quarter (28%) the expected 'euphoria' of being given the 'all clear' was actually replaced by the fact they simply felt 'emotionally drained'.
Many of the patients I work with who are going through cancer focus solely on getting through treatment. They want to use all of their energy to get well and don't want to 'tempt fate' by thinking of the future. However, this can mean that once the regular tests and treatment have stopped and the pain and discomfort are no longer occupying their time and thoughts, they can feel like there's a gap - people often tell us they feel lost, and don't know how to take steps forward.
At Bupa, we believe it's important for people to realise that those who have gone through cancer treatment still require significant support, time and understanding from healthcare professionals, family, friends and work colleagues as they continue with their lives. We offer advice on living post-cancer from the diagnosis stage. We help people to think through and plan for the many practical and emotional challenges they may have to face when their treatment ends, from something as simple as getting their confidence or appetite back, to re-establishing intimacy with a partner or returning to exercise or to work.
I'm proud of our Cancer Survivorship Programme and our Oncology Support Team; we're here to offer help and advice to encourage people to make positive, healthy lifestyle changes following cancer treatment to aid their recovery and improve their health in the long term.
Throughout treatment we encourage patients to keep in mind the things they enjoy, things they may have to give up for a time and we help them to plan to return to them one small step at a time. For some patients, going beyond their cancer treatment means they want to take on things they've always dreamed of doing. Whilst these can be exciting and uplifting prospects that help people get through the transition period, they can lead to mixed emotions, and some 'survivors' take on too much too quickly.
We're here to support people who find that life doesn't necessarily return to normal after treatment. Some experience ongoing changes in appetite, physical difficulties eating and drinking, concerns about regaining weight, as well as sensory responses including taste, vision and hearing which can change. Others may be affected by depression or low self-esteem.
45% of the patients we spoke to admitted they were scared of their cancer returning. This sense of fear is a key focus for us. It is important for patients to be able to differentiate between what is something they'd have considered 'normal' pre-cancer diagnosis (e.g. a cold) from what could be cause for concern.
I often find that once a patient finishes treatment, they can often feel that there is an expectation from their friends and families that they should be relieved and be happy that it's 'all over' and return to 'normal'.
However, what often happens is that patients don't feel like that. They aren't immediately happy, but instead they're fearful and often feel guilty that they're not as ecstatic as others believe they should be. Or, they don't quite have the energy to return to what is supposed to be 'normal' for them.
I believe in encouraging patients to be kind to themselves and to take the time to really accept and appreciate the impact diagnosis and subsequent treatment can have on their bodies and lives. Whilst many are afraid that relationships and social lives can be negatively affected by cancer treatment, they can just as equally be strengthened. Changes will happen of course and everyone responds differently and in their own time, but there are many examples of 'survivors' living healthy and active lives post-treatment. These are the stories that should serve to inspire and inform patients.
The Bupa 'Living With and Beyond Cancer' guide is available to
download as a PDF, app for tablet or an ebook.
* Bupa Study, Dec 2013 - survey done by YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 224 GB Adults who have completed treatment for can-cer. Fieldwork was undertaken between 14th - 18th November 2013. The survey was carried out online.