Cancer patients face unexpected obstacles long after treatment

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Two major obstacles face cancer patients after treatment

1.  Friends assuming you are completely cured

2.  Doctors ‘abandoning’ cancer patients

Until recently, the tendency was for the medical profession to sign one off after surgery, chemo and radiotherapy – and you felt they washed their hands of you.  However positive you wanted to feel, side effects from the drugs you have to take, and after-effects of treatment cast up problems – and it seems it is no-one’s responsibility to deal with these, or help you.

Are you the only one who keeps on forgetting things – develops joint pain – keeps on being sick – suffer fatigue – or produces a host of other problems cropping up just when you want to get with life?

Now at last the medics are beginning to realise that, however much WE want to get on with life, residual problems will be around, and they must help us to handle these.

This is a fairly new development.  Until recently, anyone diagnosed with cancer was extremely lucky to survive for long.  However, if they did survive long hospital stays and basic care, they often made a good recovery.  But there were no ‘miracle’ drugs to help them.


Today, thanks to ‘new’ drugs, we are likely to live much, much longer.  However, what no-one realised was that these drugs have long-term side effects, and at a Macmillan conference one of their doctor speakers said that ten years after diagnosis, 60% of patients will be presenting at the GP’s with long-term side effects.

The Oncologists have latched on to these drugs that have produced brilliant results in clinical trials.  What very few of them have taken on board is the fact that these drugs have many very serious long-term side effects.  Yes, we will now live a lot longer.  But no-one has bothered to set up any assistance or training in how to deal with the results of subjecting our bodies to powerful ‘mini-chemo’ on such a prolonged regime.

What’s happening in the States

There are 12 million fellow cancer survivors there , according to Livestrong, the nonprofit group founded by renowned seven-times Tour de France winner, cyclist Lance Armstrong.

“Cancer treatments are (increasingly) more successful,” says Dr. Catherine Alfano, program director of the National Cancer Institute’s Office of Cancer Survivorship. ” But, she points out, “Even while we have more diverse types and more successful treatments, they all still exact a toll on the body.”

As a result, long-term survivors are now the subjects of considerable medical attention and research.

Last year Livestrong surveyed more than 2000 cancer survivors about their concerns.  Here are some of the major health issues reported:


Many people know that chemotherapy treatments can cause profound tiredness, but they may not realize that fatigue can persist in some survivors for years. “We’re not entirely sure, but it may be due to unchecked inflammation in the body,” says Dr. Patricia Ganz, a professor at UCLA School of Medicine. Treatment could possibly push the immune system into overdrive, and in certain patients, the resulting inflammation could increase fatigue “as if the body were constantly fighting off a bad flu,” Dr. Alfano adds.

Kenechi Udeze was four seasons into playing for the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings when searing migraines sent him to his physician in 2008. The headaches turned out to be a symptom of acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Udeze underwent a bone-marrow transplant the same year and was declared cancer-free. But the nerve damage, or neuropathy, from the aggressive treatment he underwent ended his pro-football career. “Nerves regenerate very slowly, and my feet, my grasp, they just weren’t what they were,” explains Udeze, now 27 and living in Seattle. The former defensive end has also been left with severe chronic pain. “In the middle of the night, my toes and ankles contract so hard, it’s like a cramp times 10,” he says. Neuropathic pain can be caused by some forms of chemotherapy. Radiation and surgery may also leave the patient with scar tissue, leading to painful tightening of the skin’s surface or internal adhesions. “Many cancer survivors need pain control,” Dr. Ganz says. “They need palliative care like you get at the end of life. Only here, they’re not dying and suffering–they’re living and suffering.”

Cognitive impairment
Last year in the Journal of Cancer Survivorship, 74 women were interviewed at least one year after the completion of their breast-cancer treatments. One of their most common complaints was what patients and doctors call “chemo brain,” a loss of memory and an inability to concentrate. No one is sure why it occurs, Dr. Alfano says. “Survivors are telling us they’re having cognitive problems, but when we give them standard neuropsychological tests, we can’t detect impairment. It may be the tests’ fault, so we’re using brain MRIs and PET scans to measure brain function.” According to Dr. Alfano, one current theory is that people who carry a certain gene associated with Alzheimer’s may be more vulnerable to chemo brain than people without the gene.

Infertility and sexual dysfunction

Cancer treatment can leave many patients–men and women–infertile. Even when it doesn’t, it can impair a woman’s fertility by reducing her total number of eggs. Some survivors also report suffering sexual dysfunction after they’ve been pronounced cancer-free, which could possibly result from a combination of physical, hormonal, and psychological factors.

As research on cancer survivors proceeds, solutions to their problems will likely be discovered or devised. For now, Dr. Alfano says, “physicians shouldn’t talk about patients going back to normal after treatment. We want to help people find the best ‘new normal.'”

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2 thoughts on “Cancer patients face unexpected obstacles long after treatment

  1. Pauline Crowe September 29, 2010 at 3:17 pm Reply

    I am on Arimidex following breast cancer in 2003. Yes I am concerned about bone density which has been affected but is not critical. I am more concerned about being told I must stop taking it. I suppose it is my prop! I think I may well need councelling. Fear is something that is hard to measure and has a real impact on one’s life.

    • Verite Reily Collins September 30, 2010 at 10:35 am Reply

      You might try contacting the American cancer hospitals (under Contacts) and asking what is their advice. And do make sure you do a lot of exercise. Watch out on my site because I hope to have some positive news about how this helps – and if you would like to email me on I will make sure I put you on the mailing to let you know when I write about this.

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