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A Patient’s Guide to Managing Cancer as a Chronic Illness

September 03, 2019

Every day in laboratories and clinics across the world, biologists, physicists, researchers, and physicians are working to identify cancer cures. Their work has led to important breakthroughs in cancer diagnosis and treatment. But for some types of cancer that remain beyond the reach of the ultimate solution – a cure – treatment has advanced that makes it possible for some patients to live with and manage cancer as a chronic illness.

The American Cancer Society defines chronic cancer as controlled or stable cancer, meaning tests and scans show the cancer is not progressing over the course of time. Some cancer types, such as chronic leukemia, and some lymphomas and ovarian cancers, are ongoing – meaning they are never completely gone from your body. Some cancers that have spread or come back in other parts of the body, such as metastatic breast cancer or prostate cancer, may also become chronic cancers.

The ACS estimates the five-year survival rate for all cancer patients increased about 20 percent in the past 30 years. People are living longer, fuller lives as a result. Each patient experiences cancer differently. Living with cancer as a chronic illness is very different from a patient’s life after cancer. Below are considerations for living with chronic cancer.

“New” vs. Recurring Cancer

Understand your diagnosis and what it means for your long-term health and quality of life. Sometimes, chronic cancer is diagnosed after a recurrence, when the first cancer type returns. This is different than being diagnosed with a second cancer. It’s essential to openly communicate with your oncologist and care team to understand your diagnosis and have a complete picture of your long-term treatment plan.

Stick to the Plan

Adhere to your treatment plan, medication, and follow-up appointments. When you are managing cancer as a chronic illness, treatment becomes a “normal” part of life. The goal of long-term treatment for chronic cancer is to help patients live their best quality of life for as long as possible. This requires an ongoing partnership between patient and care team. Patients may experience unpleasant side effects. For example, the National Institutes of Health reports that pain occurs in 50 percent of people with cancer. Adhering to the treatment plan, staying consistent with medication and follow-up treatments, and communicating honestly are ways for patients to stay on top of managing their care.

Take Care of Yourself

Dedicate time to care for your emotional well-being – and know you’re not alone. Learning you have cancer is devastating – learning it’s not going away may bring an entirely new set of fears and frustrations. Some patients experience depression, and living with uncertainty may feel overwhelming at times. This is normal, and patients are encouraged to seek support. A part of taking care of emotional well-being may also include making lifestyle changes, such as changing the way you eat, the activities you have the energy to participate in, and learning to become more open about your emotional health.

The number of Americans currently living with a history of cancer is approximately 14 million, according to the Journal of Oncology Practice. That’s a lot of hope for a lot of people living with cancer. At Texas Oncology, we’re honored to serve our patients through every season of their cancer journey.

For upcoming webinars visit www.TexasOncologyFoundation.org.