Doug Mackenzie is a professional photographer based in Bainbridge Island, Washington. He has been a squamous cell carcinoma survivor for 6 months.
My story is from the perspective of a person who had, for the most part, been a very healthy man for 63 years of his life. No major health issues beyond some high cholesterol and sore knees and ankles from running too many marathons in my 40s. I felt relatively healthy, so I was devastated when I was told I had stage IV squamous cell carcinoma on my right tonsil.
Six chemotherapy treatments and 37 radiation therapy treatments later, I was cancer-free. But I soon found that transitioning back into a normal routine was not easy.
Transitioning after cancer treatment comes with its own set of emotional and physical challenges. Your health care team is still there, but there’s a lot more you have to take charge of on your own. They did their job, and now it’s time for you to learn to walk on your own again, one step at a time.
Here are 3 things I have learned about transitioning out of cancer treatment:
Be prepared for care withdrawal. Once treatment is done, you will be scheduled for follow-up care. Appointments are spaced to meet the different needs of each patient. Barring any severe complications, the transition to post-treatment life means working on your own to rebuild your strength and stamina.
The bonds you form with your health care team during treatment are unique. And it can be challenging for someone to adjust back to life like it was before cancer. You may miss the interactions and support that came from the daily and weekly care you received while in treatment, what I like to call “care withdrawal.” Some side effects may linger or take longer to heal, like my mucositis that took 12 weeks to heal. The team will try to prepare you with what to expect, but every patient is different. A positive attitude and believing in yourself are instrumental in a good transition.
Be aware of possible ongoing side effects. During treatment, one of the things that keeps you going is the thought that most of the worst side effects will heal soon after treatment ends. You mentally prepare for the best outcome, but reality can be significantly different. Your “new normal” may include managing many of your side effects long after treatment ends. Or, some side effects may recur.
Many treatment centers have very active post-treatment support centers that understand these challenges. Reach out to them, to other patients, and to your health care team for help.
Hold on to your social support. Family caregivers become your coaches and support system when you aren’t coping well with your cancer treatment. And you still need them when you are transitioning out of care. I am forever indebted to my caregivers. My wife Angela was a champion. She was my primary caregiver through my treatments and even after. Her love, support, tenacious research, and daily encouragement made all the difference. We have also had loving family and friends who came to stay with us to assist in caregiving.
As a final point, I feel that my long-term recovery depends on keeping a positive attitude and celebrating each new day.