A Guide for Cancer Survivors

Behind heart disease, cancer fatalities continue to be the second most common cause of death in the United States.  According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the fatality numbers are much higher in most underdeveloped countries around the world.
In the U.S. the lifetime risk of contracting cancer is about 40% for males and 32% for females. However, every year more and more cancer patients become free of their diseases. According to National Cancer Institute’s data, over the last decade, the cancer fatality rate has declined by about 20%.
In 1960s only 30% of cancer patients could be cured.  While, today’s relative 5-year survival rate, for all forms of cancer, is about 60% for adults and 74% for children.  Major advances in cancer control have been partly due to new treatments but mostly due to preventive measures such as tobacco cessation, healthier diet, weight reduction, and exercise.  Research shows that environmental factors are much more responsible for incidents of cancer than genetic factors. According to a major study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, genetic factors play a much smaller role in the etiology of cancer than was previously thought.  In this Swedish study Paul Lichtenstein and colleagues researched over 90,000 people (over 44,000 pairs) of identical twins from Denmark, Finland, and Sweden. They found 10,000 cancers among their group. The results of the study indicate that if one identical twin developed cancer the odds of the other twin developing the same cancer were less than 15 per cent.  The kinds of cancer with the most genetic influences are as follows: Prostate cancer 42%, Colorectal cancer 35%, Stomach cancer 28%, Breast cancer 27%, and Lung cancer 26%.
Cancer survivors need appropriate pos-treatment care. Once the patient has been treated for cancer, he/she will need to receive regular medical checkups and follow their doctors’ recommendations.  At the same time cancer survivors will need to make certain lifestyle changes.  They also need to care for their body according to their type of cancer, and their bodily response to treatments, plus, their physical and psychological state.
Some survivors may need ongoing home care or rehabilitation treatments, pain management, and care for their emotional and sexual problems. Besides the stresses of having to adjust to a new lifestyle, another emotional ordeal is caused by the need to be alert to any signs of return of cancer and trying not to get obsessed with it.
In that case they will need to write down some basic homeworks for themselves.  Once they fulfill those assignments, they will need to remind themselves that they have done their best and there is no more need for concern.  Their list may include keeping records of all medical care received, learning more about their condition, being prepared with questions and information about their health, when they visit their doctor, etc.
But, most importantly, cancer patients need to realize that they also need to enjoy their lives.  They need to make sure not to make aftercare concerns and activities their primary focus of life.  Once they know they have done the basic assignments required and followed their doctors’ recommendations, they need to turn their attention to more important things in their lives such as their job, their family, and their personal and social pursuits.
For those cancer survivors that their treatment or surgery has caused them restricted ability to perform routine physical activities, their emotional reactions may range from depression to hopelessness to anxiety and sleeplessness. 
They complain that they are frustrated and upset that, because of their condition; they cannot do the things they used to do.  Side effects of treatments such as bodily pains, loss of a limb as a result of surgery, or cognitive deficits such as memory failures are commonly cited by these patients.
Rehabilitation programs offered as adjuncts to medical treatments can help cancer survivors to enhance their physical functioning capabilities.   Regular exercise can help increase vigor and virility and promote mental alertness.
However, some cancer survivors have major difficulties making the best of their lives by accepting and enjoying their new lifestyles.  For them, changes in attitudes are necessary in order to bring more happiness into their lives.  They need to avoid becoming too dependent on others and at the same time create and maintain a healthy balance of relying on family and other sources for things they can not do and performing the functions that they can do independently.
Furthermore, some survivors whose illnesses have limited their physical abilities have a hard time accepting their new roles in the family.  For example, a mother who used to care for her children everyday may not feel comfortable relinquishing her position as the caretaker of the family. 
I have heard such mothers or fathers who lost their ability to work following their cancer treatment, to describe themselves as “useless” or “worthless.”  These survivors certainly need to change their attitude in order to accept their new roles in the family and in their relations with their friends and relatives.
Over time, some survivors do adjust to their new lives and prosper.  For others who fall into the void of depression, they may need to seek professional help.  There are many sources of support available for cancer survivors.  They range from support groups and organizations such as the National Cancer Institute or American Cancer Society, to professional mental health practitioners who have had training in and familiarity with cancer survivor issues.
The good news is that the old attitude that the word cancer spelled death is no longer valid.  The prevailing attitudes among researchers and clinicians are one of a positive outlook.  With new approaches to prevention, early detection, and treatments help is available to avoid or to care for patients, and cure them in most instances.
Today, researchers view cancer as the most curable of all chronic diseases.  In the last two decades, the advances in knowledge and understanding of the molecular biology of cancer have been tremendous.  New discoveries in cancer research have made the hope of finding an ultimate solution to this problem a realistic possibility.
As of today, however, still, the best way to reduce the risk of cancer continues to be adopting a lifestyle of healthy habits, good diet, and physical activities. In a near future, I will talk more about advances in cancer research when we discuss the latest findings on the Alzheimer’s disease and stem cell research.