Monday, March 1, 2010

Finding your way to a fulfilling future

It was the moment I was waiting for. My oncologist said, "You are healthy," and returned to his desk to make notes on my chart. 

But after completing breast cancer treatment, few women feel like going out dancing. We are more like long distance runners who stumble across the finish line, except with no medals or ribbons. We may have aches and pains, lingering side effects, doubts, fears, and bills. The adrenaline that got us though surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation is no longer there. We are facing the next phase of our lives, stripped of the structure that got us here.

During a Saturday morning presentation at the Young Survivor's Conference in Atlanta, the director of the National Cancer Institute's Office of Cancer Survivorship program mapped out the steps for planning our futures.
Dr. Julia H. Rowland points out that many suvivors find themselves facing a paradox. When treatment is complete, friends and family want the patient's pre-cancer persona to return. But this can create a confusing and upsetting situation. She says survivors need to explain the recovery process to the people in their lives, a journey that for most women takes about the same amount of time as active treatment.

The National Cancer Institute suggests this recovery should start start with a written treatment summary and follow up care plan, that includes an assessment of any physical pain or cognitive problems, as well as a strategy for primary and preventative care.
Rowland implored the audience to be active participants in their medical care, and suggested that this approach is the key to creating a good quality of life.

Along with familiar suggestions like exercise and nutrition, Rowland suggests our philosophy may be a vital tool. She emphasized the importance of telling our stories, and expressing our creative energy, though activities like writing, art, and even gardening. She believes that after our experience with cancer, new possibilities will emerge, and encouraged young survivors to,"Live at the edge."

Rowland adds that a support system is key to personal growth after the trauma of cancer, and suggests that it is possible to find a benefit to our experience. She says that cancer survivors can emerge with increased self esteem and a sense of mastery, and encouraged the audience to see our futures as rich with potential. 

As I re-read my notes on Rowland's presentation, it occurs to me that it was a bit like listening to a commencement speech, and perhaps that is what we needed. We have been though the tests and trials, now we are ready to graduate.

For more information on cancer recovery call the National Cancer Institute at 1-800-FOR-CANCER and ask for the booklet titled,"FACING FORWARD: LIFE AFTER CANCER TREATMENT."

Julia H. Rowland, Ph.D. is director of the National Cancer Institute's Office of Cancer Survivorship and a long-time clinician, researcher and teacher in the psychosocial aspects of cancer. She has written extensively about women's reactions to breast cancer, as well as on the roles of coping, social support and development during treatment for cancer. Dr. Rowland was the first director of Memorial Sloan-Kettering's Post-Treatment Resource Program, an innovative resource center providing a full range of non-medical services to patients and their families after the end of treatment. Since joining the NCI, Dr. Rowland has created numerous partnerships to advance public awareness about the needs of survivors with other federal and non-governmental agencies.


  1. Thanks so much on reporting back from the conference - I would love to have been there - but this is the next best thing :-)

  2. Marie,thank you for the comment, I am so glad this was helpful!

  3. Thank you for sharing this--this is a topic that needs to be discussed more often!

  4. thank YULBBC you are right! I wonder why cancer centers do not have this sort of lecture once a month for people who are finishing up!

    There are some books including Hester's that are helpful, and I am glad that booklet is free.

  5. A friend of mine made this comment...I reflected on the statement,"She says that cancer survivors can emerge with increased self esteem and a sense of mastery,,," I kind of feel like that. It has been many years since I have tried to learn something as in-depth as I have learned about my cancer. I now know I can read, understand, analyze and synthesize information from countless articles, medical abstracts and people fairly well. To the point that I have been asked by more than one clinician if I come from a medical background. I just laugh and say, "Yeah, I have an associates degree in breast cancer now." I know I have the self esteem, don't know if I will ever feel the mastery though.