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Thomas Harris, Guest Columnist: Moving Beyond Life as a "Cancer Survivor"

Publication: Waco Tribune Herald, Waco 

Being declared cancer-free is something to celebrate. But for many patients, that milestone comes with a mix of emotions — joy, anger, relief, sadness, confusion and even guilt. Transitioning from patient to survivor is not a destination. Rather, it is the beginning of a new normal.

Cancer treatment is changing and redefining lifestyles for many of the 14.5 million survivors in the United States. Advancements in medicine and technology are making it easier for patients to declare themselves cancer thrivers — not mere survivors.

As an oncologist, my role is not just treating tumors but also helping meet patients’ growing expectations for keeping their lives as normal as possible even in the face of cancer. That can mean exploring treatment options so that patients experience less disruption (and discomfort) and are more able to engage in fulfilling activities during and after treatment.

This evolution in approach is profound. We’re shifting the conversation from surviving to thriving. Research from PricewaterhouseCoopers confirms we’re on the right track. In its study “From Surviving to Thriving: Cancer’s Next Challenge,” 71 percent of patients said they want a health care team that is proactive about future needs and challenges. I encourage patients to talk with their oncology team to make sure they have a plan for reaching their goals.

Advancements such as immunotherapy, targeted therapies and personalized medicine constitute quantum leaps forward in reducing short- and long-term side effects, improving quality of life for cancer survivors. Thriving also is enabled by our community-based care approach, in which patients receive treatment closer to family, friends and support networks. This is our way of maintaining a more thriving-friendly environment for patients.

In follow-up appointments, we often hear stories about patients who are accomplishing amazing things. We can’t help be inspired to give our fullest effort when we learn our patients are now climbing mountains, tap dancing or delivering flowers to help cheer up and cheer on other patients.

It is important for patients and caregivers to see that our commitment extends beyond the treatment plan. I believe most patients welcome the opportunity to make that connection, which is founded in a holistic and patient-centered point of view.

Oncology teams can help patients thrive during treatment by carefully monitoring their health and communicating early and often about options, expectations and outcomes. After treatment, patients take more responsibility for their daily and long-term health. For many, it’s a daunting task.

That’s why many oncology practices have support teams that begin working with patients early in the treatment process to prepare for life after treatment. At Texas Oncology, we help many patients with a strategic survivorship plan that addresses nutrition, exercise, emotional well-being and other needs. In addition, cancer thrivers also need help with:

  • Access to health care
  • Careful monitoring of long and late effects of treatment
  • Screening for recurrence and secondary malignancies 
  • Help managing quality-of-life issues

From the moment of a cancer diagnosis, patients understandably focus all energy on fighting the disease. But with more people surviving cancer than ever, we urge patients to take charge of their future and to embrace and define thriving on their own terms. Whether that’s running a marathon, taking up watercolor painting or spending more time with kids or grandkids, it’s all about living the best, fullest life possible.

Read the full story at the Waco Tribune Herald, Waco.

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