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Care After Cancer Treatment

Getting active in your follow-up care after cancer treatment can make a world of difference.

Follow-Up Exams May Be Frequent continued...

Many patients will receive follow-up care from their oncologist, the cancer specialist who treated them, while others will get follow-up care through another doctor, such as an internist or gynecologist.

During follow-up, doctors also check for side effects of cancer treatment. Three months out of chemotherapy, Ronan says his side effects have been limited to skin discoloration on his arms. But his doctor will also watch for effects of chemotherapy that include increased risk of infection, organ damage and infertility.

Some risks from cancer treatment can show up a decade or more later. In Hodgkin's disease, leukemia can develop five to 10 years after chemotherapy. Also, lung, breast, or stomach cancers can occur 10 or more years after treatment. In another example, women who have undergone chest radiation face increased risk of breast cancer. "They needed to have mammography done at more frequent intervals," McCabe says.

Because cancer treatment can cause pain, fatigue, swelling of limbs, sleep disturbances, premature menopause, and other problems, survivors may benefit from other forms of follow-up care, too. For example, some will need physical therapy to restore lost mobility, while others will require pain management, infertility treatment, or counseling for depression.

Get Active in Your Follow-Up Care

During follow-up, a cancer survivor's cooperation is key, Raghavan says. "It's important not to miss appointments." Follow-up also allows survivors a chance to take part in their own care and to regain a sense of control that they lost during treatment. They may want to ask their doctor the following:

  • How often should I come in for follow-up appointments?
  • Which follow-up tests do I need? How often?
  • What symptoms should I watch for? Which ones might show that cancer has come back?
  • Whom should I call if I see these symptoms?
  • What can I do to relieve pain related to cancer treatment?
  • Do I need to see any other doctors?
  • What are the potential long-term effects of my cancer treatment?
  • Where can I get reliable information about my type of cancer?

Knowledge is power, so Raghavan strongly urges survivors to read up on their cancer. "Educated patients are much better consumers. They should go online to reputable sources that have good information."

Bob Hammer agrees that patients must be active on their own behalf. When the 37-year-old California man had a recurrence of testicular cancer during his follow-up phase, he got savvy fast. When his doctor suggested surgery that would render him unable to have children, Hammer turned to the Internet.

"You should do a lot of investigating and ask lots of questions," he says. "Make sure you're comfortable with what's being recommended. It's not a foregone conclusion that you have to do what the doctor says." Armed with information, he switched to a new doctor who successfully treated him with chemotherapy. Had Hammer listened to the first doctor, "My 2-year-old Joshua wouldn't be here today," he says.

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