Recent data shows that there are about 16.9 million cancer survivors in the United States—and that number is expected to rise. Ongoing research and innovation of cancer treatments, which have given way to more effective, targeted therapies, has led to a steady increase in survivors. There’s also a greater awareness surrounding cancer, allowing people to be screened earlier and catch certain cancers in more treatable stages.
Thanks to this growing number of survivors, the definition of survivorship is changing, too.
“Today, surviving cancer doesn’t only mean being cured,” says Cassandra Smith, a nurse practitioner who leads the Henry Ford Cancer Survivorship Clinic. “As every person’s cancer story is different, the point at which they consider themselves survivors varies as well. Some people feel like they’re survivors the day they’re diagnosed because that’s when they start fighting. Some people call themselves survivors after having surgery to remove a tumor. And for some people, being a survivor means managing it like a chronic condition.”
Take "Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek, who was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer in 2019 and, a little more than a year later, is beating his cancer odds with ongoing treatment.
“More people are living longer and thriving,” Smith says. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not a difficult diagnosis to grapple with, regardless of the type of cancer you have.”
Life After Cancer: An Ongoing Journey
No matter where you are in your cancer journey, cancer can feel like a lifelong condition.
“Any diagnosis of cancer is life altering,” Smith says. “It doesn’t just stop after you’ve had surgery and you’re clear. Even after that, you continue to have screenings for years, check-ins with your care team, labs, imaging or mammograms. Mentally, cancer never goes away. Being around those labs can bring up a lot of anxiety. Just having the word cancer associated with you is heavy—it comes with a lot of emotions.”
For a large part of someone’s cancer journey, the focus is on getting through treatments and coping with side effects. Once that part is over, survivors have time to process what they endured. They’re thinking about what life will look like afterward and wondering what their new normal will be.
“No one focused on this survivorship stage of cancer before, but as the number of cancer survivors continues to grow, more significance is being placed on this ‘after’ stage,” Smith says.
Planning For Survivorship
That’s why a survivorship care plan is important—it bridges the gap between life in treatment and life afterward.
“A survivorship care plan is very individualized,” Smith says. “It gives an overview of a patient’s diagnosis, how they were diagnosed, when the workup started, what treatment they received—the whole chronological story of exactly what happened. Then, moving forward, the plan explains what the follow-up will look like: how often they’ll see a provider, what labs they’ll need, and potential latent side effects from the treatment received.”
A survivorship care plan also lists available resources to improve your quality of life: Acupuncture and rehab appointments are available to ease lingering side effects from cancer treatments, exercise programs can provide individualized fitness assessments and plans, registered dietitians will offer tips to jump-start healthy eating habits, and--not least of all--psychologists are there to listen.
“Whether you’re cured, you’ll be taking a pill for the rest of your life, or you’re still receiving treatments, everyone responds and adjusts differently, and that’s why talking to a therapist is important,” Smith says. “Having that support system can help with the healing process.”
Cassandra Smith is a nurse practitioner who leads Henry Ford Cancer’s Survivorship Clinic and sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and Downriver as well as Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital.