Keeping cancer survivors on a path of good health

With early detection and highly effective treatments, more people are surviving cancer than ever before. The American Cancer Society estimates 13.7 million cancer survivors today – a number that is expected to grow to 18 million by 2022.

With so many survivors, some cancer centers are creating Survivorship Programs to help their patients find sure footing on the path to the best possible quality of life post-cancer.

The topic of survivorship was highlighted in a 2005 report by the Institute of Medicine, “From Cancer Patient to Cancer Survivor: Lost in Transition,” which revealed shortcomings in care when patients transition from acute cancer treatment back to routine healt care.

Some patients have perceived there to be a transition from well organized to fragmented and disorganized care.

Health care providers, including primary care physicians and other specialists, may lack information about the patient’s specific condition.

The report identified an overall lack of support for patients following cancer treatment and the absence of established best practices for post-cancer care, which results in a wide variation in care. Indeed many patients report that the end of cancer treatment is bittersweet.

Getting a clean bill of health also means giving up what has become an important support network that includes regular doctor appointments and bonds formed with other patients and staff at their cancer center.

When these routine visits wind down, some patients feel adrift and unsure of what to do next. Patients often have concerns about whether the cancer will return.

Some feel betrayed by their bodies and struggle with anxiety or depression.

There also are physical changes that can include fatigue, learning and memory disorders, neuropathy, osteoporosis, pain and lymphedema.

The Institute of Medicine report suggested the need for a written “cancer survivorship plan” that summarizes information critical to the individual’s long-term care.

While every Survivorship Program is different, those that follow the report’s recommendations give the patient complete, very personalized information about their cancer and the care they received that can be shared with all future caregivers.

The plan can set guidelines for healthy living including diet and fitness recommendations, as well as set timelines for proper surveillance to ensure early detection if the cancer returns.

The survivorship plan can also identify common concerns or symptoms that the patient is likely to experience based on his or her treatment and either provides or helps patients find the resources they need to address them head on.

In addition to a written care plan, all patients are eligible to take part in a monthly clinic where they can meet with physician assistants specializing in cancer treatment to work through their survivorship plan.

Because survivors face more than the physical impact of their disease, a survivorship plan may also help them find financial consulting, social support and even fitness or cooking programs to help them continue on the path of good health and care.

Mcnaughton and Zimmerman are physician assistants at Susquehanna Health Cancer Center.