Risk Management & Treatment

Survivorship

Experts use the word "survivor" for any person who has been diagnosed with cancer at any stage. Survivorship refers to the short- and long-term health and wellness concerns of people who have been diagnosed with cancer.

The effects of cancer and treatment begin at diagnosis but they can last long after treatment ends.


Follow-up care after treatment

Even after treatment ends, it is important for cancer survivors to receive ongoing follow-up care from a doctor who can address the issues listed above.

The National Comprehensive Cancer Network guidelines for cancer survivors recommend that they be checked annually by their oncologist or primary care doctor for special health issues, including: 

For many of the health issues listed above, exercising regularly, eating a balanced diet and maintaining an ideal body weight can improve health outcomes. Research on ways to improve health and quality of life in cancer survivors is ongoing. 

After treatment, some oncologists provide their patients with a "survivorship care plan" that outlines the treatment the patient received and provides a list of recommended follow-up visits and care. It is very important that you speak with your doctor and have a plan for care after treatment ends, including:

  • which doctors should you see, and how often?
  • which tests should you have done, and when?
  • who should you contact between appointments to report any symptoms or side effects?


Heart disease

People diagnosed with cancer have a greater risk for heart disease than people who have never been diagnosed. Some cancer treatments, including chest radiation, and certain chemotherapy and targeted therapy agents can cause heart damage. Other risk factors include early-onset menopause from treatment or surgery and a family history of heart disease. Researchers are also studying whether inherited mutations, including BRCA1 and BRCA2, may affect the risk for heart disease. 

NCCN survivorship guidelines recommend that cancer survivors be regularly checked for heart disease:

  • Doctors should review patients' medical history and note any treatments that increase risk for heart disease.
  • Doctors should check patients for other heart disease risk factors, including high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, obesity and a family history of heart disease.
  • Doctors should examine patients for signs of heart disease. 
  • Patients showing evidence of heart disease should have a complete cardiac exam, including imaging (e.g., echocardiogram), EKG and blood tests.

Because heart disease that is caught early is more treatable, it's important for cancer survivors to receive follow-up care for heart disease and to report to their doctor any shortness of breath, abnormal heart rhythm, chest pains or other symptoms.

 

Cognitive function and fatigue

People diagnosed with cancer often report trouble with their memory and abilty to think clearly, also known as cognition. This change can persist even years after treatment ends. Chemotherapy and other treatments may effect memory; patients sometimes refer to this as "chemo-brain." Other factors, like early-onset menopause, stress and anxiety may also affect memory. In many cases, memory changes associated with cancer improve over time. 

Like memory issues, fatigue is common in cancer survivors and can persist years after treatment. Many of the causes and approaches to fatigue are similar to those for memory.

NCCN guidelines recommend that doctors ask cancer survivors about changes in memory and thinking and their experience and level of fatigue as part of their regular visits. Patients who report cognitive changes or fatigue should be checked and treated for underlying causes, including depression, sleep disturbance, fatigue and medication side effects. The guidelines recommend that survivors limit alcohol and drugs that can affect memory, sleep quality and energy level. 

Some research has shown a benefit from yoga, exercise, mindfulness, meditation and cognitive training. Research has shown some benefit from the medication Modafinil, a drug used to treat sleep disorders.


Lymphedema

Lymphedema is fluid buildup and swelling that develops in the arms, legs or other part of the body, usually as a result of surgery that removes lymph nodes or radiation therapy. The swelling and fluid may be mild to severe and can cause pain, infection and loss of mobility. 

Although symptoms of lymphedema may not always be obvious, it is important for survivors, especially those who have had surgery, radiation or lymph nodes removed to report any persistent feeling of heaviness, pain or discomfort, muscle weakness, tightness or swelling to their doctor. 

Lymphedema is usually managed with special massage and compression garments. This is most effective when it is caught early. In some circumstances, lymphedema that progresses can be managed with surgery. The right type of weight training under supervision and physical activity do not worsen lymphedema and in fact, may help to lower risk.


Sleep

Sleep is important to overall wellness. The NCCN recommends that doctors ask survivors about their quality of sleep and check for underlying medical causes of sleep disturbances. Sleep experts can help develop plans for treating sleep disorders, which may include behavioral therapy, strategies for improving sleep habits and medication. 

finding-experts

Many cancer centers offer survivorship expertise and services, including fatigue clinics, sleep centers, lymphedema experts, and pain management experts. As your doctor to refer you to experts who can address your symptoms and concerns. The following resources can help you find the following experts:

  • The American Academy of Sleep Medicine's website SleepEducation.org includes a section on finding a sleep center by location.
  • The American Physical Therapy Association's ChoosePT.com website allows you to search for a physical therapist in your area. 
  • Eatright.org, the website for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, has an online tool to find a nutritionist in your area. You can search for nutritionists by specialty, including "cancer," "weight management" and "heart health." 
  • The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine has a searchable directory of licensed acupuncturists.
  • The Lymphatic Education & Resource Network has tips and tools for finding lymphedema experts.
  • The North American Menopause Society is an organization for menopause experts. Their website has a tool to help you find a qualified menopause expert in your area.
clinical-trials

Fatigue

Heart disease

Lymphedema

Memory and cognition

Visit our Research Search and Enroll Tool to find additional studies. 

Last updated March 12, 2020