Living better at home with cancer
Cancer is scary—even with early detection and an excellent prognosis. Everything from the seemingly endless medical appointments and ongoing uncertainty to the aggressive treatments and their side-effects can cause anxiety and fear. And not just in the person with cancer. Family members also share the burden of fear, stress, and worry.
While cancer cases in this country are on the rise—so is the rate of survivorship. Thanks to advances in detection, treatment, and supportive care, over 15.5 million cancer survivors are alive today in the United States. And the survivor numbers keep growing.
What is cancer?
Cancer isn’t one disease. There are over 100 different types of cancer which share some common characteristics and originate in different parts of the body. Cancer can start in a specific organ, system, or region, including the lungs, breast, prostate, colon, or blood. While cancers are alike in some ways, they are unique in the ways they grow and spread. And unique within each person.
Cancer occurs when cells in the body start to grow out of control. Unlike normal cells that divide in an orderly way, perform their function, then die when damaged or worn out, cancer cells keep on growing. They continue to divide, making new cells that crowd out normal, healthy cells. This not only creates problems in the part of the body where the cancer started, it causes cancer cells to spread to other parts of the body.
Some cancers divide and grow quickly, others grow and spread more slowly. The type of cancer you have and the stage of your cancer helps your oncologist determine the best treatment plan for you. Cancer treatments typically include surgery to remove a lump or tumor, radiation to kill or slow the growth of cancer cells, and chemotherapy to kill or slow the growth, especially when cancer cells have spread.
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The side effects of cancer treatment—such as pain, fatigue, or depression—can be as difficult to handle and manage as the disease itself. But many people with cancer don’t talk to their doctor about their symptoms. This means symptoms that could have been treated are not, leading to unnecessary suffering, diminished quality of life, and, in some cases, missed follow-up appointments and scheduled treatments. If you don’t feel well enough to get to your cancer treatment appointment, then the treatment can’t be effective.
Common cancer and treatment symptoms.
While symptoms related to cancer and its treatment vary depending upon the type and stage of cancer, there are a number of common symptoms that most people with cancer experience.
- Nausea and vomiting: Caused by the cancer itself or by radiation or chemotherapy. Some people receiving treatment don’t experience any nausea or vomiting. Others feel sick just thinking about going to treatment. It’s important to manage vomiting to avoid dehydration.
- Weight loss and loss of appetite: A loss of normal appetite can be caused by a changed sense of taste or smell (common with cancer and treatment), feeling full, tumor growth, dehydration, or side effects of treatments.
- Fever: Fever can happen with an infection. It can also be caused by cancer growth or as a side effect of treatment. People getting chemo are more likely to have infections, which can cause a fever, because they have lower numbers of the white blood cells needed to fight them.
- Fatigue and weakness: Cancer treatment fatigue, the most common side effect, is different from being normally tired. Fatigue can appear suddenly and can be overwhelming. It’s not relieved by rest and may last for months after treatment ends.
- Pain: Most often caused by the cancer itself, pain can also be caused by cancer treatment or tests. The amount of pain a person feels depends on the type of cancer, its stage, and the individual’s tolerance for pain.
- Stress and isolation: Feelings of stress, anxiety, and isolation are common with cancer. Depression is also common among people with cancer, affecting about 1 in 4 people—but it can be treated. People who have had depression before are more likely to experience depression after their cancer diagnosis.
If you have been diagnosed with cancer...
- Feel your emotions. Whatever you are feeling—anger, fear, sadness, disbelief, acknowledge it. Allow yourself to feel your emotions and express them in healthy ways. Consider joining a cancer support group for a safe place to share your feelings.
- Learn about cancer. It’s natural to want to look away from the details and facts about this disease. The better armed you are with current, accurate information, the more prepared you and your family will be at every stage. But don’t make everything about cancer—give yourself plenty of time to think and talk about other things, people, and activities you enjoy.
- Be your own advocate. Take an active role in your health, treatment, and care plan. Be sure to ask specific questions and to voice your needs and wants to your doctors.
- Communicate directly. Talk to your family and care providers about your personal priorities, what quality of life means to you, and the pros and cons of treatment options.
- Reach out to others. Spend time with people who make you feel good, friends who make you laugh, other people with cancer and cancer survivors who can relate to you and aren’t afraid to talk openly and honestly.
- Stay positive. Find joy in the small moments of your day, listen to music you love, spend time with pets or young children, watch funny movies or TV shows, explore alternative cancer treatments (diet, short fasting, meditation), things you can do along with your traditional treatments.
While the symptoms of cancer and its treatment may vary for each person, the measures to relieve those symptoms should be the same—informed, swift, and caring. Be sure you have help lined up from family members, friends, or care professionals so you get support and the care you need during and after cancer treatment.
If you’re caring for someone with cancer...
When someone you love has been diagnosed with cancer, it’s easy to feel frightened and overwhelmed, especially if you are the primary caregiver. If you stay informed, connected to others who can help, open to new ideas and resources, and hopeful, you’ll be well prepared. And keep in mind—you are not alone in this.
- Feel your feelings. Cancer inevitably stirs up difficult emotions—fear, anger, hopelessness, guilt, confusion, doubt, to name a few. These feelings are all normal. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, constantly stressed, or depressed, ask for help from others and see your doctor or a mental health professional. Joining a cancer caregiver support group may be very helpful.
- Make changes to your home. Cancer treatment fatigue can make doing everyday activities exhausting. Explore products and temporary upgrades to your home to make life a little easier for your loved one during treatment. Consider buying a comfort-height toilet and a shower chair to make bathing easier when weak or nauseated. Hang a bird feeder outside the window near your loved one’s bed or easy chair for relaxing entertainment. If your loved one’s bedroom is upstairs, you may want to move a bed into a room on the main floor of the house.
- Get organized. Set up an online calendar where you can keep track of all medical appointments, tests, and treatments—and share this with family members and friends in your care circle. (Add your own activities and respite breaks to the calendar too so you don’t miss them.) Develop a simple system for managing medical bills and insurance notices. Be sure to review your health insurance plan details. If you have questions, call your insurer as soon as possible to get the answers. Most people are surprised by how much they have to pay out-of-pocket, even with good health insurance. Get help with housekeeping, running errands or grocery shopping if you need it.
- Don’t ignore your own care. If a loved one has cancer, things like exercising, reading, going to a movie, or socializing with friends can seem secondary—or not even worth doing. But neglecting your own care and happiness will only make you less able to be a good caregiver. The stress of coping with cancer is very real. So should your efforts to relieve that stress. Line up friends, family, or care professionals so you can take respite breaks, take a yoga or spinning class, get a message, or go for a swim or hike. There are also plenty of restful, relaxing activities you can do with your loved one even if they aren’t feeling strong: listen to podcasts, knit or needlepoint together, do a jigsaw puzzle, watch funny movies, TV shows, or Youtube videos. And be sure not to neglect your own healthcare.
- Explore resources in your area. There are a wide range of services and programs in place to help families dealing with cancer. Many are free. From rides to treatment and patient lodging to help improving appearance during treatment and support groups, both online and off. The American Cancer Society can help you find resources and services in your area.
- Build your care team and cancer knowledge. During cancer treatment, there will be many medical appointments that require driving your loved one. You don’t have to do it alone. Figure out who you can count on for reliable rides and invite them to join your care team. Ask for help with other things too, cooking meals, babysitting, or dog walks. When you reach out to many and ask for what you need, you’ll be surprised by how many people want to help. Don’t stop reading about cancer after the initial diagnosis. Continue to find new information and learning on cancer—and read about new clinical trials. Your loved one may be eligible.
To find more information for cancer caregivers and resources in your area, visit cancer.org.
- In the United States, over 1.6 million people are diagnosed with cancer each year.
- 42% of men and 38% of women will be diagnosed with some form of cancer in their lifetimes.
- Thanks to advances in detection, treatment, and supportive care, over 15.5 million cancer survivors are alive today in the United States, according to the American Cancer Societyʼs publication, Cancer Treatment & Survivorship Facts & Figures.
- The American Cancer Society estimates that 67% of cancer survivors were diagnosed 5 or more years ago.
Source: American Cancer Society
- To learn more about cancer or to find resources, including support programs and services in your area, visit the American Cancer Society
- Need help or answers right now? Call the American Cancer Society at (800) 227-2345. Cancer Information Specialists are available 24/7 to answer your questions.
- For more information on being a caregiver, what to expect, and helpful tips, visit the American Cancer Societyʼs website for Caregivers and Family.
- Looking for helpful, inspirational blogs? Explore these blogs about cancer.
- To find research studies testing new drugs or methods to prevent, detect, or treat cancer, visit the American Cancer Societyʼs Clinical Trials Matching Service.
This information is for educational purposes and is not a substitute for the advice of a medical professional.
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