Cancer survivorship is about more than surviving your treatment or making the cancer go away forever. Survivorship is about living, and is something you and your treatment team should be thinking about from the time you are diagnosed, throughout your treatment and beyond. You are a survivor from the day you were diagnosed, and this section offers some information and resources to help you promote your survivorship.
It is easy to get so caught up in the diagnosis of cancer that we forget about the rest of our bodies (and mind!). We encourage the kind of self-care during and after treatment that will promote your well-being and overall health. This is important not just to fight the cancer or prevent its return, but also to live the full life you deserve. This means taking care of your body with exercise, a healthy diet, and care to your mind and spirit.
Exercise: Exercise has been shown to improve health, build strength, boost immunity, reduce stress and improve fatigue. Studies have also shown that patients with cancer benefit from staying active and engaging in regular exercise even during their treatment. Experts recommend most people get 30 minutes of moderate exercise at least five days a week, but this may not be achievable just yet—that’s okay! The most important thing is that you choose an activity you enjoy, do it regularly, and be patient with yourself. It’s fine to start slowly and commit to ten minutes of activity a day. Your community may have activity programs specifically designed for cancer survivors, which can be a great place to start.
Nutrition: Your food is the fuel for your body, and a healthy diet can promote your strength and wellness and give you the energy to heal. You may hear about many fad diets for cancer patients or feel the need to overhaul your diet. These approaches may not necessarily be healthy or right for you.
- Fill your plate with veggies first. Fruits and vegetables are good for you. The American Cancer Society recommends five servings a day to prevent cancer.
- Whole grains are healthier than white carbs (like white bread and potatoes) and are a useful source of fiber and protein.
- Choose lean proteins. Fish and chicken are preferable to red meat. In general, only a third of your diet should be from animal product.
- Choose water over juice or soda and limit the amount of alcohol you drink.
Talk to your doctor about how your cancer diagnosis and treatment influenced your nutritional needs and ask for a consultation with a nutritionist.
Maintain a healthy weight: Being overweight or obese increases the risk of cancer returning, and increases the chance of heart disease, diabetes and stroke. Remember that heart disease claims the life of 1 in 3 women in the United States. Talk to your healthcare team about what a healthy weight means for you and discuss safe and healthy ways for you to reach the goal and maintain it. A healthy diet and exercise plan are first steps toward this goal for everyone.
Preventive health: In addition to remembering your sunscreen and vaccines, it is important for you to stay connected with your primary care provider (PCP) after your cancer diagnosis, since your PCP is the specialist in charge of helping you with health screening, preventive care, and managing illnesses unrelated to the cancer. If you don’t already have a PCP, you should establish care with one as soon as possible.
Smoking cessation: There are many good reasons to quit smoking. Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. Smoking tobacco continues to be the most common cause of lung cancer, which is the leading cause of cancer death among women. Smoking also causes cervical cancer and increases the chance of recurrent disease. And, for women undergoing treatment for any cancer, it’s important to understand that smoking increases the risk of complications related to surgery and worsens the toxicities of both chemotherapy and radiation. If you have completed your cancer treatment, congratulations! Quitting smoking now will help you feel better, heal faster, and prevent you from getting heart disease, lung disease, or another cancer. Talk to your healthcare team about setting quit date and learning about treatment options that can help you succeed.
Emotional and spiritual support, stress management: Stress is a normal response to feeling threatened or to facing a challenge you’re not sure you can meet. Receiving a cancer diagnosis is stressful! Stress can also creep into a survivor’s life through the impact the treatment can have on mental health, social interactions and financial well-being. It is very common to experience symptoms of anxiety and depression during and following treatment for cancer, such as feeling sad, alone or fearful. These are examples of emotional stress. Everyone copes with these challenges differently, and we encourage you to ask your healthcare team for help, as you deserve to live a life of hope.
Stress can have an impact on the body even if you aren’t noticing emotional symptoms. Studies suggest that stress impacts the body’s ability to fight off disease, so it’s important to address stress management as part of your treatment and plan for survivorship. Some things that can help:
- Mental health professionals: Social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists may all play a role in your care already and can be very helpful in identifying stress reduction techniques that work for you. Counseling is especially helpful to cope with feelings of emotional stress and counteract symptoms of anxiety and depression. If symptoms are severe, these professionals may help you understand if medications may be of benefit.
- Support groups: It can be helpful to talk with and hear from women who share similar experiences as yours. Support from your peers may help you reduce stress and feel less alone. Talk with your healthcare team about support groups available to you in your community. There are also online support groups you may find useful.
- Stress management: No one can just get rid of stress, but we can learn how protect ourselves from the effects of stress. Some things you may find useful include counseling, mindfulness-based stress reduction, meditation or prayer. Studies have also shown that exercise and social engagement can improve our bodies’ stress response.
- Social engagement: Surround yourself with loved ones and stay engaged in the communities that are important and meaningful to you. Believe it or not, this will help you combat the effects of fatigue and stress from your cancer. If you are still in treatment, you may experience side effects that affect how you feel about joining in social events with friends and family. Your healthcare team may be able to adjust your treatment schedule to help you feel as well as possible for the life activities you don’t want to miss, like weddings or graduations.
- Financial stress management: A cancer diagnosis brings many changes to your life, not the least of which are costly treatments and a compromise to your ability to work. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) offers certain protections for workers and family members who must be away from work for health reasons, and we encourage you to talk with your employers about flexible plans to accommodate your needs. Your healthcare team may also be able to refer you to an adviser to help you understand your rights and prepare for the future. The following resources provide more information about the financial stresses of cancer and how to alleviate them.
Many of the treatments used for gynecologic cancers leave a lasting impact on the body. Ranging from fatigue to chemo brain to foods tasting differently, these symptoms can be barriers to you feeling well. Here we explain some of the common issues women face and provide resources for more comprehensive information. We encourage you to talk to your healthcare team about the changes you have noticed in your body.
Cancer-related fatigue is more than just feeling tired and can interfere with your daily activities. It is commonly noticed around the time of diagnosis and can persist well beyond when you finish your treatment. It is important for you and your doctor to rule out other causes of fatigue, like anemia or low thyroid function. Exercise and a good night’s sleep are good for everyone, and many women also benefit from participating in cognitive behavioral therapy (a kind of counseling) and support groups.
“Chemo brain” can range from a minor and occasional loss of concentration to a measurable deficit in cognition. This symptom is worsened in women with symptoms of depression, fatigue, or other illnesses that are not well-controlled. Routine physical activity, stress reduction and good sleep patterns are important in combatting chemo brain, and sometimes patients benefit from occupational or other therapies. Talk to your doctor about a strategy that is right for you.
Menopause is inevitable for all women, but everyone experiences it differently. In general menopause happens as a result of the ovaries no longer providing estrogen for our bodies. This could be a natural result of aging, or because the ovaries have been removed, or have shut down because of the effects of chemotherapy or radiation.
Symptoms of menopause can include hot flashes, night sweats, vaginal dryness, trouble sleeping and mood disruptions. These symptoms have an even worse impact on quality of life when they are “premature” (happen in young women) or occur as a direct result of cancer treatment. Also, women who have already gone through natural menopause when they receive their cancer diagnosis can have new or recurring symptoms as a result of treatment.
The most effective treatment for menopausal symptoms is estrogen replacement treatment, but this is not a safe option for every woman. Sometimes it is safe to use small amounts of estrogen locally (to the vagina, for example) because your body won’t absorb too much of it. Your doctor can help you understand the risks and benefits of hormone replacement treatment as it relates to your specific cancer diagnosis and other health history.
Hot-flashes are the most common bothersome symptom for women and can be treated with non-hormonal medications prescribed by your healthcare team. Women have also benefited from exercise, hypnotherapy and acupuncture. There are also over-the-counter supplements available for hot flashes, but some of these can act like estrogen in the body, so you should talk with your doctor about these options before trying them.
It’s important to know that menopause is also associated with osteoporosis (poor bone density) and heart disease. You should talk with your doctor about how to monitor your body for these things. A healthy diet with plenty of calcium and vitamin D, and a regular exercise routine can help your body prevent both bone loss and heart disease.
Lymphedema is a swelling of a body part that happens when lymphatic fluid gets backed up. Lymphedema can happen when lymph nodes are removed at the time of surgery or lymphatic vessels are scarred from radiation treatment. If you have had one or more of these treatments, you should know the symptoms to watch for, but there is no reason to restrict your activity. In women with gynecologic cancers, the body parts most likely to be affected are feet, legs, groin, genitals or lower abdominal wall. Symptoms can range from a body part feeling heavier than usual or appearing swollen. If it goes unnoticed, lymphedema can progress to more significant swelling and skin changes that make activity difficult.
Lymphedema is usually diagnosed within a year or so of finishing treatment, but it can also happen years down the road. You should notify your healthcare team if you notice new swelling, especially if it is on one side of your body more than the other. Treatment for lymphedema is most effective if the symptoms are caught early, and therapies range from compression garments to special types of massage and physical therapy.
Being diagnosed with a gynecologic cancer can impact a woman’s sexuality and how she experiences intimacy in a number of ways. Women may experience changes in their body image, a decrease in libido or sexual desire, and the stress of diagnosis and treatment can put a strain on partner relationships. Treatments themselves, like radiation and some surgeries, can result in anatomic changes to the vagina or vulva that may make sexual encounters physically painful or otherwise unsatisfying. Treatment for gynecologic cancers also may induce menopause, causing vaginal dryness and other hormonal changes, and many medications have decreased libido as a side effect.
It is very common to experience these symptoms, and we encourage you to talk with your doctors about when to have sex and how your treatment may impact your sex life. Open communication with your partner is also important.
You may ask your healthcare team for a referral to a sexual health specialist, many of whom tailor their care to cancer survivors. These specialists may include gynecologists, oncologists, psychologists, physical therapists or primary care providers, and your healthcare team should know of specialists near you.
Fertility for a woman refers to the ability to get pregnant and deliver a baby. Having a cancer of a female reproductive organ (gynecologic cancer) can directly affect the function of those organs, affecting a woman’s ability to conceive or carry a pregnancy. Surgeries that are necessary for effective treatment of gynecologic cancers often remove reproductive organs. Chemotherapy and radiation can both affect the function of the ovaries and uterus (womb). If you are a woman of reproductive age, it is important to talk with your doctor about how your diagnosis and treatment may influence your fertility, and what steps you can take to preserve some or all of your fertility. This may involve referral to a reproductive specialist, or a gynecologist who specializes in assisted reproductive technologies. Here are some of the options that may be helpful you, depending on your diagnosis:
- Fertility sparing surgery for cancer
- Embryo freezing
- Cryopreservation of eggs or ovarian tissue
The best time for a consultation with a reproductive specialist to understand your options for fertility preservation is before you start your cancer treatment. However, innovations in the field of assisted reproductive technologies are ongoing, and women who have completed their treatment may still benefit from a consultation. Talk with your healthcare team about your options and whether you would benefit from consultation.
Palliative care refers to healthcare that is focused on alleviating symptoms and helping people feel better. In cancer care, this means treating symptoms of the cancer as well as toxicities or side effects from the treatment. While the words “palliative care” sometimes make us think of end-of-life care, the truth is that access to palliative care early in cancer treatment not only helps women feel better, but also live longer. Hospitals and cancer centers often have teams of doctors and other clinicians dedicated to a palliative care service. Talk to your doctor about whether a referral is right for you.
It is uncommon for women under the age of 40 to be diagnosed with a gynecologic cancer, and it is even more rare for it to happen to a young woman under the age of 25. But it does happen, and these young women face a unique set of challenges during their treatment and in planning survivorship. If you are an adolescent or young adult dealing with a gynecologic cancer, treatment really impacts your future… your fertility, your education, your career planning, your life. And you may not relate to other patients around you in the chemo unit or in a support group. Some cancer centers have AYA programs designed specifically to meet your needs. Ask your healthcare team about services tailored just for you.
Survivorship plan: For months now, you have focused on getting through cancer treatment. Now what? It’s time to sit down with a member of your cancer care team to understand what you have been through and how to advocate for your health going forward. In this visit you should receive information that summarizes what kind of cancer you had, the treatment you received and how both may impact your health in the future.
You undoubtedly have more doctors now than you did before, so it’s helpful to clarify the role your oncologists will play, and the role of your primary care doctor. It is important to maintain a relationship with your primary care doctor to continue your preventive health care and tend to other health needs.
Surveillance: When you have completed your treatment, your doctor will lay out for you a strategy for cancer surveillance, which is how you and your team will keep an eye out for a recurrence of the cancer. This discussion may happen at the time of your last scheduled treatment, or during a dedicated survivorship visit as described above. You will learn about the signs and symptoms that you should report to your doctor, as they may signal a return of the cancer. The specific symptoms and plan for surveillance depend upon the kind of cancer and what stage it was at diagnosis. Your surveillance plan will include regularly scheduled visits with members of your care team for an assessment and physical exam and may also include blood tests or radiology studies, depending on the situation. Talk with your doctor about a surveillance plan that makes the most sense for you.
The Society of Gynecologic Oncology (SGO) and Foundation for Women’s Cancer (FWC) Survivorship Toolkit provides convenient resources to help you organize information about your diagnosis, treatment and long-term follow-up.*
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle and routine examinations are key to fighting recurrence. The following tools can be used in conjunction with information provided by your physician or cancer care team. You can also direct your health care provider to these resources so that they may be accurately completed and used. Use our Seek a Specialist tool to find a gynecologic oncologist in your area.
These forms can be used by either you as the patient or your health care provider to summarize treatment and list any side effects you may experience. These forms are specific to the type of cancer you were treated for.
Review this Gynecologic Cancer Wellness and Preventive Health Plan for ways to maintain a healthy lifestyle overall. This plan can be used by anyone treated for a gynecologic cancer, regardless of disease type.
This one-page Survivorship Calendar will help you keep track of your appointments after your cancer treatment. An additional page lets you keep key contact numbers handy and make important notes. Useful in print or electronic formats.
- American Cancer Society Survivorship: During and After Treatment
- Cancer.Net Survivorship
- NCCS Cancer Survival Toolbox ®
- Untire App, beating cancer fatigue together
*SGO developed these resources as an outgrowth of the paper, “An update on post-treatment surveillance and diagnosis of recurrence in women with gynecologic malignancies: Society of Gynecologic Oncology (SGO) recommendations.” The paper was published in the July 2017 issue of Gynecologic Oncology.