Photo courtesy of Heather Hawkins.
Let’s talk a little bit about the second stage of cancer survivorship. If you haven’t read Sherry’s post describing the stages of survivorship, check it out!
- Stage 1 is from diagnosis to completion of initial treatment
- Stage 2 is from completion of treatment to remission, watchful waiting and recovery from treatment
- Stage 3 is long-term survival
Sherry describes her first steps into stage 2 as terrifying. “I finished 17 months of chemo, rang the bell and walked out the door… and right off a cliff. OK, not really, but that’s what it felt like,” she shares. “After having my medical team by my side for almost two years, I was suddenly on my own. I had to figure out how to ‘stay healthy,’ after doing everything I could to kill the cancer in my body.”
Dr. Chasse Bailey-Dorton of Levine Cancer Institute’s Integrative Oncology department explains stage 2 as the “treatment” stage. Her biggest advice for someone in treatment is to share with your medical team anything you’re doing or taking as part of your health care. She said some studies estimate 90 percent of cancer patients are taking or doing something (e.g., herbs, supplements, seeing an alternative provider) without telling the oncology team.
“It is important to have a qualified team who works with your oncology team to give safe, evidence-based advice about complementary therapies during treatment.” She emphasizes how important it is to be candid about with your doctor about any regimen you’re following because some supplements can make chemotherapy more toxic or even less effective.
Dr. Fitzhugh Mullan divided stage two into two subgroups:
- Transitional survivorship, when treatment has ended but survivors may still feel anxious, depressed and isolated as they engage in ‘watchful waiting’ to see if the cancer will return
- Extended survivorship, which comes in three forms: cancer-free (treatment-free remission); maintained remission (staying cancer-free because of ongoing therapy); or living with cancer (as chronic, advanced disease that requires continued treatment)
“Time to reset my compass”
Heather Hawkins, a survivor we introduced you to a few months ago, underwent surgery after a stage 1 diagnosis of ovarian cancer and then spent five years on a medical surveillance program of regular blood tests, physical examinations and scans to monitor for any cancer return.
“I got to know my oncology team very, very well,” Hawkins shares. “…When that day arrived to have my final consultation, as much as I’d looked forward to it, and the milestone that it represented, I still found myself feeling incredibly emotional and overwhelmed at the prospect of going it alone.”
Hawkins describes the conflicting emotions of yearning for this new beginning – a clean bill of health is a celebration, right? – but dreading the solitude of it, as well.
“After all those years of being part of a team, wrapped up in the comfort of being on someone else’s radar and enjoying the familiarity of walking into the medical rooms and seeing my oncologist on a regular basis, it would just now be me, and my gynecologist, getting together every six months.”
Tips to cope
Hawkins says transparency and candor were early allies. “I found that by being completely open about my worries and talking these through with family, friends, other ovarian cancer patients and my oncology team really helped so much,” she says.
Changing her perspective, helped, too. “As time went on, it dawned on me that it was perfectly natural to feel this way – that it’s ok, we’re all human – and to actually not think of it as a sign of weakness, but a brave recognition that this is really tough stuff that we’re facing here.
Hawkins shares how she navigated these new emotions:
- Focus on mental health: “If we can settle ourselves, keep it together, rise up to the challenges, stay focused on finding a way through, then this can help us counteract the negative impact of any unease,” Hawkins says.
- Control what you can control: “…eating healthily, exercising gently and staying involved and busy in life helped keep concerns under wraps.”
- She made a conscious decision to trust her oncology team. That may sound obvious, but focusing on that trust can give your mind permission to focus on other things.
- Praying “settled my spirit and kept me positive.”
Hawkins: Positive distractions are a must
“As often as I could I’d go for walks and have ocean swims – I found physical exercise was a great stress relief. I’d come out of the water feeling a whole lot better than when I went in, I’d cleared my head and things seem to be much more manageable. Then as time passed and I felt stronger, I ventured into long distance running and this helped me even more.
“Other things I did throughout this time was to listen to music, to write a journal, to read books and did as many fun things with my family that I possibly could. I made sure that any uncertainty was quickly replaced with positive, practical plans to stay alive.”
“Time to reset my compass”
Hawkins was reluctant to say goodbye to her oncology team but tried to stay focused on what the milestone meant.
“I remember choking up with emotion,” Hawkins says. “But I knew that the door back to normal life was now open and I had to be brave and take my first few tentative steps on my own. It was time to close this chapter and walk out into the sunshine. I was a survivor. I was a positive statistic that would help shift the balance against this devastating disease.
“It was now time to reset my compass—to point my feet in the direction of living life to the full – and go!”
Hawkins’ first book debuts in August 2017. “Adventurous Spirit: Sometimes Life Takes Us to Places We Never Planned to Go” is available for pre-order now!
Resources at SherryStrong.org:
- Sherry practices yoga as often as she can and cherishes her time with yogi Gracie Jane, who is helping make yoga accessible via SherryStrong.org. Check out her post “Yoga Nidra with Gracie Jane!”
- Focus on nutrition, even if you have to travel, with tips from Sherry’s post, “How I eat healthy food while traveling.”
- Experts say journaling through challenges helps ease stress. Sherry spoke with a journaling expert in this post, “Journal through cancer to find peace.”
- Guided imagery can be a powerful stress-busting tool, Sherry says in her post titled, “How guided imagery can relieve stress.”
Are you a survivor?
Have you experienced the “stages” we’re talking about? What have they meant to you? We would love to hear how you or someone you know has experienced stages of survivorship. Let’s learn from each other! Share in the comments below.