Cancer Survivorship

Who is a Cancer Survivor?

A “cancer survivor”  refers to someone who has had a history of cancer. Some people identify more with being refered to as “a person who has had cancer,” or if, for example they are dealing with cancer day to day, they may not think of themselves as a survivor, rather someone who is “living with cancer.”

Each person's experience  living life with cancer is unique. 

Some common reactions to having had cancer are:

  • I appreciate life more.
  • I have greater self-acceptance.
  • I feel more anxious about my health.
  • I don’t know how to cope now that treatment is over.

What is Survivorship?

Cancer survivorship focuses on the health and life of a person's post-cancer treatment. Survivorship also includes issues related to access to health care and follow-up treatment, late effects of treatment, additional cancers, and quality of life. Family members, friends, and caregivers are also considered part of the survivorship experience.

Phases of Survivorship

There are three recognized phases of survivorship. All phases require different levels of care and additional follow-up. What a person may experience is unique in many ways.

  1. Acute survivorship begins with diagnosis and extends through the period of further diagnosis and treatment. Cancer treatment is the focus.

  2. Extended survivorship begins at the end of initial cancer treatment into remission and follows the months after. This is the time of "watchful waiting" and is focused on the effects of cancer and treatment. During this stage, many survivors are also learning to live with chronic side effects of their treatment.

  3. Permanent survivorship is the period when the Cancer treatment ended and recurrence seems less likely. Long-term effects of cancer and treatment are the focus including psychological challenges and secondary effects of the previous cancer treatment.

Screening tests that may find cancers earlier, possibly increasing survival rates:

  • Mammography for breast cancer
  • Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) test for prostate cancer
  • Colonoscopy for colorectal cancer
  • Pap test for cervical cancer
  • Low-dose CT (LDCT)

Surviving cancer: What to expect

At the end of active treatment, a patient’s continual contact with their health care team ends. Survivors may experience:

  • Relief that treatment is over
  • Increased anxiety
  • Uncertainty about the future
  • Fear that the cancer will return
  • Loss of usual support
  • Guilt about surviving
  • Physical, psychological, sexual or fertility problems
  • Relationship struggles
  • Discrimination at work

Changed Relationships

When active treatment is over, survivors’ needs change and relationships may also change. You may have some friends that become closer, while others distance themselves. Families may also become overprotective or may lose their ability to be as supportive. However, those needs change in your relationships with others there are some things to keep in mind to help move forward in positive ways. Try to carry on with open and ongoing communication, realize the entire family changes from the cancer experience. It is encouraged to work through these changes and get the support you need.

Getting back to work

Going back to a regular work schedule is a sign of getting back to a normal routine and lifestyle. Most people need their job and the health insurance it provides.

People with cancer may:

  • Work during treatment
  • Take time off for treatment and return to work afterward
  • Be unable to return to work due to the effects of cancer or its treatment

At work, you may find that:

  • Coworkers may want to help but not know how
  • You are treated differently or unfairly, when compared with before cancer treatment

What you can do:

  • Realize that when and how you choose to discuss a diagnosis is a personal decision
  • Set the limits, if you do choose to start the conversation
  • Try to anticipate questions from coworkers both during and after treatment and decide in advance how you want to answer

More Information

Cancer Terms (NCI Dictionary)

Additional Resources