8 Things You Should Know About Life after Lung Cancer Treatment

Adjusting to life after lung cancer treatment can be difficult. Here are 8 things to know about life after lung cancer treatment.

by Calvyn Ee

The term “cancer survivor” refers to persons who have been diagnosed with cancer of any form at any stage of their life. Not many will like being called a survivor, owing to the nature of their cancer and the profound impact it has had on their life. Others, however, may wear it like a badge of honour, looking back on how they’ve grown since their initial diagnosis. But however you might feel about it, cancer changes a lot of things – and you now have to adapt to a very different life than you remember.

Challenges as a Lung Cancer Survivor

In Malaysia, lung cancer accounts for 10 per cent of all cancers. In fact, it is also the most common cause of cancer-related deaths in the country.

Despite attempts by the Ministry of Health to improve outcomes for people at risk of lung cancer, rising pollution and prolific smoking (among other things) continue to worsen the risk factors in society.

Since your diagnosis and recovery, the road ahead will be fraught with frustrations and uncertainty, and navigating the road ahead will be challenging. How do you adjust to this “new normal” after cancer treatment? How will people treat you now that you’re on the road to recovery? Do you still worry about the prospects of cancer recurring? What can you do to take charge of your life?

A lot of doubts can appear as early as the completion of treatment for your cancer. For many people, the emotions you feel when you learn that your treatment program has come to an end are varied. Some feel relief and joy; others feel afraid or confused – the emotional spectrum does not just end there. No two persons will go through a similar experience, and how they cope with how they feel is also different.

As time goes by, more questions (and consequently, more doubts) will begin to surface as you ponder the uncertain future ahead of you. In times like these, you wish you had the answers, or that someone would have answers. You might then feel guilty, frustrated, and hopeless over time, even when you thought you weathered the worst of it already.

But more than that, cancer leaves a pervasive mark on you, and so does the treatment of it. Side effects due to treatment can occur and make you feel even more anxious about where you will be in the next few years. All of this can eventually overwhelm you if you do not take care of your well-being.

It is crucial that you take baby steps towards facing life after lung cancer treatment. The important thing is to not go down that road on your own and to slowly find ways to take charge of your health once more.

Having a Care Plan

By far, having a comprehensive care (or survivorship) plan will help to set you down the right path to a more fulfilling life. You and your doctor will need to discuss it at full length once treatment comes to an end. This can be considered a future-proofing plan for your long-term well-being.

Follow-up checks are part and parcel of the plan, so you’ll be able to speak with your doctor while they check on your health on a regular basis. The premise of the plan is simple:

  • Monitor your overall health
  • Look out for, and address, any side effects due to treatment
  • Look for any possible signs of lung cancer recurrence
  • Provide medical advice where needed

The initial stage is to draw up a detailed care plan that tells you what will be done to keep your health in check. Scheduling regular appointments and screenings will be the first step, followed by arranging for specific healthcare specialists to be part of the process. You will be given the details of these specialists, why they are important in your care plan, and how you can contact them if you need to see them or ask questions.

As part of regular appointments, you will be frequently asked a number of questions so that the medical team can properly assess your current state of health and know where to go from there. You can also ask questions of your own to allay any doubts on your mind or to clarify aspects of your post-treatment care that confuse you.

It helps to prepare a list of questions beforehand so you do not feel so anxious about needing to ask them. Otherwise, enlist the help of a loved one to ask them for you. Have the doctor describe things in simple terms, if you find it hard to understand what is going on. In fact, ask if you can contact the doctor at specific times if you might have any questions to ask in future.

Much like any plan, one’s care plan is highly personalised to meet specific criteria in ensuring their long-term well-being, so no two plans are quite the same. As things change over time, your plan will evolve to best cater to your needs, but you can always speak to the medical team about these changes, or how you might feel about them. If you are aware of changes occurring but are unsure of what to do, always bring it up with the medical team so that they can adapt your plan accordingly.

Having a care plan allows you, your loved ones and the medical team to communicate effectively over a host of topics pertaining to your recovery and survivorship.

Coping with Side Effects

New cancer survivors will experience confusion when they have any side effects even after treatment is over. Many of them think that side effects will go away once treatment ends, but become fearful when they don’t. In all honesty, it can feel quite scary when that happens. Most people assume that they will start to feel better after treatment is complete.

When side effects do occur, they may happen on an irregular basis. Still, any side effects that you experience should always be reported to your doctor as soon as possible so that they can help you manage them promptly.

At any point in time, you may experience any of the following:

  • Fatigue or nausea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Pain
  • Unexpected weight changes

If a side effect does occur, be sure to notify your doctor promptly so that they can adjust your care plan to account for it. They may prescribe medications or alternative therapies that might help alleviate the side effect(s). You might also be advised to change a few things in your daily activities.

Fatigue is one of the more frequent side effects a person will experience in the initial phase of recovery. You’ll often find yourself having little energy to go about your day. It could be due to other complications that might arise, such as anaemia, or due to poor self-care, such as a lack of nutrition or rest. For some people, fatigue slowly disappears over time, while others see no change or experience it more often than usual.

Simple things you can do to overcome your fatigue include:

  • Planning the day’s activities ahead of time
  • Take short naps in between activities
  • Exercise regularly
  • Have a regular sleep schedule
  • Add more nutritious foods to your diet
  • Find new ways to do things while saving your energy

Coping with Stress

Stress can also interfere with your recovery process in more ways than one. Inevitably, you’ll still be worried about where you’ll be in the next few months or years, especially when there is the possibility of recurrence. It ends up making you feel powerless to do anything about it.

Constantly worrying over your condition and the future can end up draining your energy, preventing you from focusing on your recovery. The longer this goes on, the longer it will take a toll on your physical and mental health.

If need be, professional help can go a long way to keep you back on track with your recovery and put your mind at ease. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), for example, is one method that can help you with managing your emotions in a more positive light. In fact, numerous studies have found that CBT has a profound positive impact to help a person tackle issues such as depression, anxiety and so forth.

Various other activities may also be beneficial to keeping you present and aware of how things are changing and how you can cope with these changes. These include:

  • Meditation techniques
  • Practising mindfulness
  • Counselling
  • Exercise
  • Support group interactions 

Keep Track of Your Documentation

One aspect most people overlook is the importance of keeping their treatment documentation. While it might seem rather trivial, it can be extremely important if you have to move away and need to see a new medical professional (or go to a different hospital) for follow-up treatment. Having the details of your treatment, as well as any care plan you have gone through thus far, can help inform the new doctor(s) on what has been done and what needs to be done next.

Speak to the medical team for copies of the following items:

  • Your diagnosis date
  • Pathology reports on the type and stage of cancer
  • Reports on all surgical and other medical procedures conducted (including radiotherapy/chemotherapy/immunotherapy sessions)
  • Screening and imaging reports, such as CT scans and MRI reports
  • Known side effects you face, and possible side effects as well
  • Issues that might have occurred during treatment
  • Relevant information pertaining to your care plan
  • Any alternative medicines you receive, such as traditional Chinese medicine
  • Contact information of your current care team

You might also want to retain these items for a variety of other non-medical reasons, such as making insurance claims for your hospitalisation (where applicable).

Communicate

Even when treatment ends, the recovery process will still need to continue – but despite growing cancer awareness in Malaysian society, not everyone will be aware of how cancer impacts not only your life as a survivor but also theirs. Some people assume that once a person is cancer-free, then they have already made – or are on the road to – a full recovery.

It isn’t hard to see why survivors find the road to recovery difficult, not only because they worry about their well-being, but also because they worry about how their friends and family will react to the recovery process. Some may think that things will go back to normal in time, but the reality is that both survivor and their close ones will need to acclimatize to a “new normal” post-cancer.

It can be hard for friends and family to come to terms with the complexities of the recovery process, let alone the fact that you might still need care for the rest of your life. Again, all this stems from longstanding misconceptions about cancer recovery, as well as an inability to understand how things have drastically changed. Family dynamics can change overnight, as can work relationships, owing to your condition and the after-effects that come with it.

It will not be easy, but communicating with them about how things are going is a crucial component to help you along with your recovery. They mean well and do their best to help you where they can, but it still takes time for the reality of it to sink in. They will need to understand what you are going through and how things have changed, for better or worse. Otherwise, you might feel that you are not getting the support you need to get through this difficult time.

You may also end up feeling as if you are not getting sufficient support from your family, especially during various instances where you expect more from them. They might not fully understand the gravity of the situation, but may not be aware of how they make you feel. At the end of the day, communication is a two-way road.

Have a heart-to-heart talk with your loved ones about how you feel and ask for their continued support and patience. Tell them how they can best help you, or understand how you feel about your condition or various other aspects of your life. At the same time, let them voice out their concerns and feelings, too; after all, they’re only human, too. They also want what is best for you, but might not realize what you are really going through.

Lifestyle Changes

While some things are not within your control, there are other things you can. Of particular concern is your overall lifestyle. Changing your lifestyle will take some time to get used to, but it can be very beneficial in the long term.

Changes you can make include:

  • Quit smoking: Smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer in the country and give your own experience surviving lung cancer, it is only right that you give up the habit entirely to allow your lungs to heal and prevent further complications caused by smoking.
  • Having more nutritious foods in your diet: Consider following the Malaysian Healthy Plate serving recommendation: one-quarter of your plate should be for carbohydrates (e.g. rice, bread), one-quarter for proteins (e.g. fish, meat, tofu), and half the plate for vegetables. A serving of fruit should be no larger than a cup, or the size of a small rice bowl. Opt for healthy sources of nutrition and reduce your intake of oils, sugars, red meat and high saturated fats (among other things).
  • Maintain a healthy weight: Enlist the assistance of a professional dietitian to help you make dietary choices, including portion sizes and the frequency of meals and (healthy) snacks. You may also need the help of your doctor to mitigate the side effects that may affect your appetite.
  • Get sufficient rest:
  • Drink alcohol in moderation: Restrict yourself to one glass a day. While alcohol does have some benefits, it can potentially increase your risk of recurring cancer, though the correlation is still unclear. Still, prevention is always better than cure.

These are just a few things you can do to make your recovery proceed smoothly.

Exercise Regularly

Another equally helpful lifestyle change is to lead a more active lifestyle. It will not be easy at first, especially if you have to deal with side effects that cause fatigue, pain or other discomforts. Over time, it can prove beneficial by strengthening your physical health and possibly reducing the risks of recurring cancer.

Exercise provides an array of additional benefits outside of one’s physical health, including boosting your self-esteem, improving your mood, reducing fatigue and anxiety over time, as well as improving your sleep. Be mindful that you don’t overdo it, though, as you can easily hurt yourself if you do not carefully pace your exercise routine. You cannot expect to run a marathon within weeks of being discharged, after all.

It always helps to pace yourself and build up your strength at a steady pace. Start small, like climbing and descending the stairs in your house. Take it slow; one round up and down is a good enough effort to take if you just started. As you familiarize yourself with the routine, steadily build up the intensity: take it up to two rounds, then three. Or add another “course” to your routine, such as a walk around the living room, or from one room to another and then back again.

You can also enlist the assistance of a personal fitness trainer to help you work on a schedule you can easily follow. They can also give you tips on how to improve your form and instruct you on other exercises to build up your stamina or strength. Make sure you also communicate with them if your side effects are preventing you from fulfilling your exercise “quota.” It’s perfectly fine to miss your routine if side effects (or other reasons) are keeping you from being active at any given day.

The crucial part of the exercise is to get as much done within reasonable limits in a week. It is suggested that you exercise for 150 to 300 minutes a week, but remember that this is not a hard limit.

Get Home Support

If your condition is not getting any better, and your loved ones are unable to help provide the care you need, you may want to look into hiring professional caregivers to provide home support in such times. Professional caregivers are certified to provide sufficient care for a person who is unable to perform activities of daily living (ADLs) owing to a medical condition or disability. Unlike maids, these caregivers are capable of providing services such as meal preparation, grooming, cleaning, housekeeping and many more on top of providing quality care for those who need it.

Caregivers are more oriented towards attending to the care recipient’s well-being (in this case, you as a cancer survivor). This means diverting their time and energy to look after your needs while also providing companionship and support, as well as serving as a medical escort for your medical appointments.

The biggest advantage is that you will be receiving highly trained and experienced caregivers who are certified to provide a myriad of caregiving services. As such, your loved ones can rest assured that the caregiver will provide highly professional caregiving in the allotted time while they focus on their responsibilities.

Here at Homage, we focus on providing the best home support for you or your loved ones with our professional caregivers. Feel free to fill in the form if you are in need of home support and our Care Advisory will assist you with a personalised plan tailored to your needs.


References

About the Writer
Calvyn Ee
Calvyn is an aspiring author, poet and storyteller. He spends his time reading, gaming and building stories with his action figure photography.
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