Moving from remission to real life

Jennifer Dunn elaborates on the hurdles that cancer survivors face when moving from remission to real life.  

The day your oncologist tells you that you are in remission ought to be one of celebration. It signals an opportunity to return to your real life. Yet, for most, this may be one of the most difficult parts of the journey, having to bridge the gap between being a patient and your former daily routine. For many, this is when things get really tough.

There are many reasons why this can be. Patients who have completed treatment often report various side effects. These can include physical deconditioning and functional limitations, mental fatigue, servere disruption to routine and, most importantly, a sudden andimmediate sense of lack of support.  

Lack of support in the workplace

Worldwide, studies have identified survivors experiencing an unexpected and immediate decrease in support (medically, socially and psychologically) once they have completed a treatment regimen.  

One area most often identified is in the workplace where survivors are expected to jump right back to a full work day and perform at optimal level. Considering the mental and physical toll of treatment, this is a big ask and can cause feelings of overwhelmedness and even guilt when you aren’t able to keep up the pace. It’s important in this situation to verbalise these feelings.  

Those who supported you during your journey are, in most cases, simply unaware that you still need support or are uncertain about how to engage with you. Ask your human resource department or a vocational occupational therapist to assist in creating a manageable return-to-work strategy. Be kind to your body, it has been through a war.

Routine disruption

With treatment in most cases lasting beyond six months, survivors will have altered their lifestyle to make space for not only physical treatments, but also for the mental battle. The treatment experience can be all consuming and once over, survivors are left with large gaps in their day-to-day routine and the emotional burden of how to fill them meaningfully. 

A long-time patient and friend once shared the enormous burden she experienced being labelled a survivor saying, “Surely I should now be doing something big and meaningful.” A professional counsellor, support group, or your significant other may be a good start in re-establishing a pre-cancer routine. Find one thing you love, be it a time for devotion, a coffee date, a walk in the park, to fill the space previously taken by daily radiation and chemotherapy.

Physical deconditioning and functional limitations 

This can last for many years post-cancer treatment. Strength and endurance are affected and side effects like swelling and stiffness of radiated areas are often sources of discomfort for a long time if not managed effectively.

Survivors in the post-cancer phase often developed poor breathing and movement patterns that further affect endurance with many reporting that they have learned to live with and accommodate the changes to their bodies.

Continued support

Internationally, the oncology world is starting to recognise the importance of continued support post-treatment. At the forefront of this movement are oncology rehabilitation teams who make use of exercise medicine and positive goal setting. Trends are moving towards personalised programmes that encourage fitness and flexibility, as well as creating spaces for professional and peer support.

Understanding the need for ongoing support has become an important area of advocacy. The side effects of cancer treatment can, in most instances, be managed with the correct professional intervention, information and care. 

A survivor who has completed treatment should be afforded the right to this support and feel no guilt in asking for it. The side effects, whether physical or mental, can have lasting effects on your well-being and shouldn’t be brushed aside as something you have to live with because you survived. It’s not only good enough that a life is saved, if due to treatment-related side effects it can’t become a life that is lived.

Jennifer Dunn is an occupational and lymphoedema therapist who also has certification in cancer rehabilitation. 
Her practice, based in Cape Town, focuses on adult physical rehabilitation, especially in the field of oncology.

MEET THE EXPERT – Jennifer Dunn

Jennifer Dunn is an occupational and lymphoedema therapist who also has certification in cancer rehabilitation. Her practice, based in Cape Town, focuses on adult physical rehabilitation, especially in the field of oncology.

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