Life after Cancer: Navigating Changes to Your Health
Adjusting to a new normal after being declared cancer-free comes with a world of emotions and complications. You may know all too well that reaching the end of your cancer treatment may not be the end of your recovery. Most likely, you’re navigating some changes to your health as a result of your cancer. In addition to physical health symptoms, you may experience mental changes like increased stress and depression. In this article, we’ll review some common health concerns and symptoms of cancer survivors. We’ll also offer steps you can take to be at your best health after cancer.
Common Concerns of Cancer Survivors
While every cancer survivor’s health status and recovery is different, there are some common concerns and challenges. Here are a few you may face:
Bone and joint issues
While your physical health may be your biggest priority in your recovery, your mental health is just as important. Unfortunately for cancer survivors, increased stress after cancer may put you at a higher risk of having your cancer return. While we’re still learning why this happens, it appears that the hormones your body creates while under stress can “awaken” cancer cells. This is why it’s so important to manage your stress after cancer and make your emotional health a priority.
What does stress look like?
Your emotional symptoms of stress may include:
Feeling more sensitive than usual
Trouble with memory
Relying on substances like alcohol to soothe your emotions
Your stress can have physical effects as well. Here are some possible physical signs of stress:
Chest pain, shortness of breath, and palpitations (rapid heartbeat)
Insomnia and fatigue
Headaches or dizziness
Muscle tension or clenching your jaw
To learn more about stress and cancer, follow [this link] to a more in-depth review.
It might sound strange to hear that you could feel depressed after the end of your battle with cancer. However, about 18-20% of adults with cancer experience depression after cancer. Depression symptoms can vary from person to person, and your likelihood of having depression after cancer depends on several factors. Those who have survived lung and brain cancer appear to be the most likely to experience anxiety and depression.
What does depression look like?
Here are some typical symptoms of depression:
Low energy, fatigue and sleep disturbance
Irritability and anger
Joint pain and achy muscles
Emotions like dread, gloom, misery, and despair
Increased or decreased appetite
Feelings of apathy, hopelessness, worthlessness, or helplessness
Loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
If this sounds familiar, you can [go here] to learn more about the connection between depression and cancer, and for more resources.
Heart and Lung Problems
Some cancer treatments, or cancer itself, may lead to complications with your heart, blood vessels, lungs, and airways. Cancer patients who are women, children, or who are older than 60 are most at risk of heart and lung problems after cancer treatment. As many as 75% of cancer patients experience pulmonary (lung) infections either as a direct result of treatment, or due to the treatment’s negative impacts on their immune system.
What do heart and lung problems look like?
Below are some symptoms associated with heart and lung problems:
Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
Chest pain or discomfort
Coughing or wheezing
Swollen hands or feet
Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
It’s important to talk to your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms.
Diet and Digestive Concerns
Gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms are the most common chronic side effect of cancer treatment. They have the greatest negative impact on the quality of life for cancer survivors. As with all of your symptoms and side effects, you should let your doctor know if you're experiencing digestive symptoms.
Here are some possible GI symptoms you may experience as a cancer survivor:
You can [follow this link] for more information on diet changes after cancer, including how to eat to support your cancer recovery.
Bone and Joint Issues
Several cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, or steroids may cause osteoporosis, or weakening of the bones. You’re more at risk of having bone or joint problems if you are not physically active. You may also experience joint pain as a result of your cancer.
Insomnia is a disorder that can include difficulty falling asleep, the inability to stay asleep, or waking up too early. Up to 75% of both newly diagnosed and recently treated cancer patients experience insomnia. That’s twice as high as the general population.
Short-term insomnia is when your sleep problems last for a few days or weeks.
Chronic or long-term insomnia is when you experience sleep disruptions for three or more nights a week and for more than three months.
If you get a full night of sleep (depending on age, most people need seven to nine hours) but still feel exhausted in the morning, you may have sleep quality issues. Sleep quality issues might show up as daytime weariness, drowsiness, fatigue, lethargy, or sluggishness. Sleep quality issues are more common in those who have sleep disorders like obstructive sleep apnea. These conditions make it hard for your body to fully rest while asleep.
To learn more about sleep and cancer, as well as ways to improve your sleep, [follow this link].
How to Improve Your Health and Reduce the Impact of Your Symptoms
Some of the previous concerns require you to make specific changes in order to see improvement. For example, to improve your sleep, you might avoid electronics before bed. However, changes like eating healthier, getting more exercise, or spending time practicing mindfulness can improve several aspects of your health.
Make Changes to Your Diet
Eating well supports your physical health, but it benefits your emotional health, too. When you feel stressed, you’re more likely to eat foods that are processed or high in calories and fat. These foods can increase your risk of mental health conditions like depression. Studies show that following a Mediterranean Diet may improve your mental health. It may also reduce your risk of cancer. The Mediterranean Diet involves eating mostly fruits and veggies, whole grains, healthy fats, and lean meats like fish. Try finding some options you like and include them in your meals.
For more information about the Mediterranean Diet and the changes that cancer may have had on your digestive tract, you can visit this link.
Get Some Exercise
Exercise can help you manage stress and mental health symptoms after cancer by producing stress-relieving hormones that lift your mood and lower pain. Strength training exercises can prevent any further bone loss after your cancer treatment. Regaining the strength you may have lost can boost your self-esteem, too. Exercise allows you to sleep better and is especially helpful for sleep quality issues. Getting enough movement can also lower your risk of many cancers.
Your treatment may have been hard on your body and you may have some physical limitations - be sure to ask your doctor if you’re cleared to exercise. You might need to exercise at a slower pace, lower impact, or for shorter periods of time. Try to find activities that are enjoyable for you and make them part of your weekly routine.
Here are some options to consider:
Walking in nature
A yoga class at the gym
Dancing in your living room
Playing with your kids or pets
Practice Mindfulness and Meditation
Mindfulness is the conscious act of bringing awareness to our emotions and the present moment. It helps lower stress while giving you insight into your emotional state. Studies have shown that meditation lowers inflammation in cancer patients, which can increase your likelihood of survival and improve your overall wellbeing.
Some obvious mindful activities include journaling and deep breathing, but you can make any activity a mindful one. If you already have an activity you enjoy, like walking in nature, listening to music, or making art, simply bring awareness to your senses and emotions as you do it.
See our article about [stress and cancer] for more information on mindfulness.
Improve your Sleep and Prioritize Rest
Your body needs rest to recover from illness and invasive treatments. To help yourself get the sleep you need, you can improve your sleep hygiene. As a cancer survivor, it’s likely that you’re experiencing sleep disturbances. Addressing the factors within your control will help minimize any sleep problems you face.
Here are some ways you can improve your sleep:
Create a relaxing nighttime routine
Limit caffeine and alcohol in the evening
Keep your bedroom cool, dark, and noise-free
Avoid screen time before bed
Use your bed only for sleep
It’s important to allow yourself some rest outside of sleep, too. Cancer and its treatment methods are fatiguing, and you may have needed to step back from activities and responsibilities. You might feel tempted to jump back in right away. However, you may not be physically ready. Set small goals for yourself and see how your body responds. Be sure to allow yourself breaks while working on challenging tasks.
To get more help with your sleep after cancer, see our article about [sleep and cancer].
Limit Alcohol Intake
Alcohol, including wine, may cause certain types of cancer. Alcohol is a problem because your body breaks alcohol down into acetaldehyde. This compound damages your DNA and interferes with your body's ability to repair itself. This can result in the growth of cancer tumors. If you don't drink, don't start. If you do, less is better. Stick to 1 drink per day for women and 2 per day for men.
I’m overwhelmed by my health needs after my cancer, and I need help.
Finding ways to improve your health after cancer may feel complicated and overwhelming. Goodpath can help. Our research-backed programs take an integrative, whole-body approach to your symptoms. This means you have solutions for both the physical and mental asp ects of your health, like digestive problems, stress, and trouble sleeping. Your program will be tailored to your individual needs and you’ll have guidance from a health coach along the way to help you make changes to improve symptoms and lower your stress. Follow this link to learn more about our cancer program.