About a million and a half people will be diagnosed with cancer in the U.S. this year. The devastating truth about cancer is that about one-third of these people will die from cancer at some point. For most, the diagnosis is unexpected and completely overwhelming.The cancer does not just affect how one feels, it undermines all sense of security and stability. It changes lifestyles and redefines relationships. So often the emotional trauma is equally shared among family members and loved ones.
Needless to say, the original cancer diagnosis marks the beginning of a difficult, frightening and frustrating experience. For this reason, it is critical not to despair. One must always remain hopeful, adjust, and prepare for the way to recovery. A fundamental step in this process is gaining an understanding and familiarity with the impending medical treatment and associated lifestyle changes. A good deal of stress can be avoided by simply understanding what to expect. While cancer treatment varies depending on the type of cancer and the individual characteristics of the patient, the patient should generally be aware of the following:
The vast majority of cancer patients will receive some degree of chemotherapy. This may consist of one or more chemotherapy cycles. Each cycle can be as long as 3-6 months. Chemotherapy involves the administration of various chemical agents called antineoplastic drugs in order to stop cancerous cells from dividing. Antineoplastic drugs are designed to attack and kill cells that divide in an uncontrolled or rapid matter. Antineoplastic drugs, however, are not able to discriminate between cancerous cells and normal cells. Therefore, cells that divide rapidly as part of their normal life cycle are also attacked. Chemotherapy may cure the cancer entirely or control its growth. Many times, chemotherapy is used in conjunction with other treatments. Some associated complications of chemotherapy include:
- Hair Loss
- Nausea and loss of appetite
- Kidney damage
- Liver damage
- Heart damage
- Deterioration of pre-existing medical conditions such as osteoarthritis, among other things.
In addition to chemotherapy, a patient may also receive radiation therapy. Radiation therapy involves exposing cancerous tissue to ionizing radiation (electromagnetic waves), which tends to destabilize the molecular structure of cancerous cells. In essence, the electromagnetic waves will ionize the atoms of the cancerous cells, by displacing electrons within the inherent structure of the atom. In turn, this process destabilizes the molecules of the cancerous cells, causing them to die.
In a number of instances, cancer patients will also require surgery to treat their cancer. Often times, the malignant tumor is identifiable and localized (as opposed to metastasized). In such instances, timely surgery is preferred. Chemotherapy of radiation therapy may follow the surgery. The type of surgery will vary depending on the type of cancer and how advanced it is. For example, a woman with ovarian cancer will likely undergo a total hysterectomy, including the removal of the ovaries. A patient with intestinal cancer may undergo a laparotomy with dissection of the cancerous tissue. Generally speaking, the sooner the cancer is identified, the less extensive the surgery.
After surgery and chemotherapy/radiation therapy, each cancer patient/cancer survivor should establish a systematic and well developed course of monitoring and supportive care with his/her physician. This will often involve a number of other health care providers such as physicians, nurses, and physical therapists. For example, a patient who has undergone treatment for ovarian cancer may require monitoring by an oncologist, a surgical oncologist, an internist (primary care physician), a gynecologist, and even a urologist. One must then factor in the extent to which the cancer treatment resulted in additional complications or the extent to which pre-existing medical conditions deteriorated as a result of the cancer treatment. As such, the patient may require the involvement of additional specialists to address and monitor the side effects of the cancer treatment. It is very important that the patient maintain a healthy nutrition and exercise regimen, if and as prescribed by the physician.
The bottom line is that cancer patients will invariably have a long and difficult road to recovery, which may take months or even years. Drastic lifestyle changes may be necessary, and patience as well as perseverance are essential. A cancer patient must know what to expect and be proactive to create support structures involving health care providers and family members/loved ones.
Helping Others in Need
If you or someone you know is a cancer patient/survivor, I encourage you to share your story with our readers. What helped you most to cope and persevere on your way to recovery?