Texas Oncology Cancer Prevention Series Adding Life to Your Years

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By Dr. Meghana Bhandari

A concept in the field of oncology that is getting more attention recently is survivorship. A diagnosis of cancer is often an overwhelming and life-changing circumstance. The entire focus of the patient and their loved ones is on the treatment. However, once the treatment is finished, what happens next? As oncologists, we not only want to treat and hopefully cure our patients, we also want them to get back to their lives even if that is a “new normal.” In this month’s article, Dr. Meghana Bhandari talks about many of the issues in survivorship.
– Vivek S. Kavadi, M.D.

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 has 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” patients adjust to when they complete treatment. I enjoy the opportunity to see all of my patients, but I always am inspired by the “thrivers” – the people who embraced their new normal and kicked it up a notch or two.

Patients thrive on varied tracks. Some may go from a couch potato to an ultra-marathoner; others may volunteer at their community cancer center and become a 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 are outward and easily noticed.

Treatments may result in changes to their 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, or eating a healthier diet.

Other changes are more psychological in nature. A common worry is that the cancer may return, a fear which 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 their life outside of the practice.

Our oncologists and healthcare teams can help maintain the good 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 Houston, 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.

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Dr. Meghana Bhandari is a medical oncologist at Texas Oncology–Sugar Land, 1350 First Colony Blvd. in Sugar Land, Texas.