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Staying strong during long-term cancer treatment

Sometimes, cancer can’t be cured or never goes away, requiring ongoing treatment, much like diabetes or heart disease.

“If you have later-stage disease, like stage IV cancer or a specific cancer like chronic leukemia or lymphoma, you may need to continue treatment for the rest of your life or until the drugs stop working,” says Sandy Pyle, RN, an oncology nurse navigator at the Loran Smith Center for Cancer Support at Piedmont Athens Regional.

While long-term cancer treatment can be daunting, there are ways to cope and enjoy a good quality of life. Pyle shares some tips for staying mentally and physically healthy while managing cancer as a chronic illness.

The effects of long-term cancer treatment

Typically, chronic cancers are treated with chemotherapy, immunotherapy and hormone therapy. The goal of extended treatment is to help you live as well and as long as possible. These treatments can be used to:

  • Manage advanced cancer that has spread (metastasized) to other parts of the body.

  • Prevent cancer from coming back.

  • Keep cancer (such as ovarian cancer, breast cancer, leukemia and lymphoma) from spreading or progressing.

Extended treatments can cause physical side effects like:

  • Lower blood counts and decreased immune system function, making you more vulnerable to illness and infection

  • Fatigue

  • Diarrhea

  • Brain fog and memory issues

  • Skin rashes

Long-term cancer treatment can also impact your mental health, increasing your risk of anxiety and depression.

“It can really wear on you mentally,” says Pyle.

When you go through treatment, you’ll be closely monitored to see how effective the treatments are. If a treatment is no longer effective or your side effects are intolerable, your oncologist may recommend that you switch to another therapy or discontinue treatment altogether.

Coping during long-term cancer treatment

“When you’re going through long-term cancer treatment, you want to keep your body as healthy as you possibly can,” says Pyle. “Good nutrition, regular physical activity and healthy sleep patterns are essential.”

She says having a support system is also critically important. In addition to your family and friends, this can include:

“It’s important to have someone you can talk to and express your feelings to,” she says. “They can be truly beneficial in helping you navigate your treatment process.”

Making time for activities you enjoy can also help you feel better mentally and physically.

“Do the things you really love to do,” says Pyle.

Stress management techniques are also essential during extended treatment. Meditation and mindfulness practices (such as yoga and deep breathing) have been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Palliative care can also be helpful during chronic treatment. Palliative care isn’t the same as hospice care, though there’s a place for both.

“The focus of palliative care is to improve your quality of life,” says Pyle. “It can be used at any point in your treatment and addresses symptoms like pain and discomfort.”

While chronic cancer won’t go away, the right treatment and lifestyle can help you live as well as possible for as long as possible. Talk to your oncologist or nurse navigator about the best options and resources for you.

Learn more about cancer prevention, wellness and treatment.

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