The end of lung cancer treatment is the beginning of the rest of your life. For many, it’s a cautious celebration. You’ve been so focused on the finish line. Now that you’ve crossed it, you wonder what comes next.
Life after lung cancer treatment is full of chances to reclaim some of the control cancer took away. This is the time to focus on your recovery: Work to get healthy and stay that way.
Look at your post-treatment care like it’s your job. Go all-in, just like you did to get here.
Make a Follow-Up Care Plan
Now that treatment is over, you’re in the follow-up phase. Depending on your type of lung cancer and treatment, you’ll likely see your doctors three to four times a year for the next 3 years.
The goal is to check in on your recovery, address any new symptoms or side effects, and see if your cancer has returned or spread. This could include a physical exam, blood tests, scans (MRI or CT), and an endoscopy.
As you already know from your treatment, lung cancer isn’t a one-doctor deal. That’s still true after your treatment wraps up. To keep it all straight, make a follow-up care plan with every doctor you see after treatment ends.
Also called a survivorship care plan, it should have a description of your health after your last treatment and a schedule of future visits. It should also cover:
- Any medication you should take, including dosage and instructions
- Tests you’ll have done, why, and how you’ll get results
- Short- or long-term side effects you might have and how to deal with them
- Signs your cancer has returned
- Suggested foods, drinks, and forms of exercise
Get Docs From Your Docs
It’s hard to keep every date, detail, and drug straight. Ask your doctor for your treatment summary. It will include your diagnosis date, the type and stage of your lung cancer, treatment types and dates, all the medications you took for it and any complications you had, and the names of all doctors, hospitals, and facilities involved. This is a key document to give any new doctors you see, and it's a good resource for questions that pop up along your road to recovery.
Understand Physical Changes
Just because you’re done with treatment doesn’t mean it’s done with you. It can be weeks or months before your body adjusts.
Most survivors say fatigue hangs on long after treatment is done. These side effects are also common, but your doctor can suggest the best ways to handle them.
If You Smoke, Stop
No surprise here: Smoking after lung cancer treatment -- or ever -- is really bad for you. It makes most treatments less effective, including radiation therapy, surgery, and chemotherapy. It also makes it more likely that your lung cancer will come back or spread somewhere else in your body.
Life after lung cancer treatment can be stressful. And addictions, including to nicotine, are tough to break. If you’re ready to quit, ask your doctor to recommend the best method for your situation.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services classifies alcohol as a cancer-causing substance. The American Cancer Society says the healthiest option is to avoid it entirely. If you do choose to drink, limit it to no more than 2 drinks a day if you're a man, and one a day if you're a woman. Alcohol often goes hand in hand with smoking, so drinking may make it harder to quit.
Make Food Your Fuel
Lung cancer treatment may have temporarily changed your appetite, digestion, and the way certain foods taste. That will shift back over time. As it does, one of the best ways to get your strength back, mentally and physically, is to feed yourself healthy foods, including:
- Fruits and vegetables, raw and cooked
- Whole grains, like whole-wheat bread, brown rice, and oats
- Beans, peas, and lentils
- Lean proteins, like fish and skinless chicken breast
- Low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese
Go easy on the processed meats, pickled foods, and anything with a lot of fat, sugar or salt. Limit your red meat to 18 ounces a week. Toast your recovery with lots of water, and limit alcohol to no more than one drink (for women) or two (for men) per day.
Make a Move
Once your doctor says it’s OK, start working exercise into your daily routine. You may feel a little stiff at first, but even a short walk can give you more energy, help your joints, and strengthen your heart.
Little by little, make your workouts longer and do them more often. Pick activities that you enjoy.
Even when you finish treatment, you may not be finished with stress. You might worry about:
- Whether the cancer will come back
- How your illness has affected your finances
- How to care for your health long-term
Anti-stress techniques like mindfulness training and regular exercise sometimes help. You could also see a mental health professional for behavioral therapy and/or antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication.
The end of treatment may bring up some big emotions. Any relief and joy you feel might be clouded by fear of the cancer coming back. You may also feel sad about the ways cancer has changed you or what you’ve missed.
Find safe places to share your feelings. Talk to friends and family members who care and listen. Connect with clergy. Try a cancer support group online or in person. Other people who’ve faced down lung cancer understand what you’re going through in a way no one else can.