Cancer survivorship affects your mind, body and spirit

June 5, 2022 Swedish Cancer Team

portrait of an elderly woman with cancer with her adult daughter


In this article:

  • Cancer survivorship starts with diagnosis and continues throughout treatment and the remainder of your life, no matter how long that is.

  • Swedish Cancer Institute offers a wide range of support services to help cancer survivors and their caretakers thrive before, during and after treatment.

  • National Cancer Survivors Day on June 5 seeks to raise awareness and honor cancer survivors as they continue to live their best lives after diagnosis.

Hearing the words, “You have cancer,” can throw your entire world into a tailspin. As you struggle to understand the ramifications of your new reality, cancer survivorship may seem like a distant dream. In reality, it’s already begun.

“When they hear ‘cancer survivor,’ most people think it refers to someone who had cancer and didn’t die. But nowadays, we do treat and cure most cancers, so just ‘not dying’ is not good enough,” says Medical Oncologist at Swedish, Michaela L. Tsai, M.D. “We want you to get through your cancer diagnosis and treatment and have a full, meaningful, healthy life. So, we consider you a survivor from the moment you are diagnosed with your cancer.”

National Cancer Survivor Day is June 5. The annual celebration of life honors cancer survivors and their caretakers with events dedicated to raising awareness, spreading information and showing that life after diagnosis can be fulfilling and rich.

Watch Swedish patient Selena Rushton's story of cancer survivorship. 

We talked to Dr. Tsai about the many facets of cancer survivorship. Here’s what she shared:

Navigating the phases of cancer survivorship

There are three stages of cancer survivorship, according to Dr. Tsai.

“The first stage starts with your diagnosis. Your physician meets with you, explains what you can expect, and outlines your options for diagnosis and treatment. And then we get started. That’s your initial survivorship,” says Dr. Tsai.

Once you’ve finished treatment, you enter the second phase of your survivorship. “At this stage, you take a step back to reflect on what you’ve experienced and how it’s changed you and your family. And we’re there with you, helping you figure out how to keep moving forward,” she adds.

The third stage of survivorship starts when you look back and say, "Oh, my gosh, what have I just been through?"

“I think the third stage is perhaps the most important,” says Dr. Tsai. “You’ve had time to recover a little bit. You’ve had a chance to process your illness and what it might mean for you and your future. Some of the initial shock has worn off and you’re ready to ask for and accept the help that’s available.”

During treatment

Every aspect of your care is tailored to your unique needs. “We manage your pain, nausea and fatigue to help you have a good quality of life during treatment,” says Dr. Tsai. “Sometimes it’s medication. Sometimes it’s massage therapy, acupuncture therapy or physical therapy. Sometimes it’s a support group. It depends on what you’re going through and what you might need.”

After treatment 

Your care doesn’t stop when treatment does. “After treatment, we answer your questions and explain anything you don’t understand fully. We work with you to examine the short- and long-term impact of your cancer. And then we develop a plan for moving forward,” says Dr. Tsai.

“We want to make sure your primary care providers understand your care needs well so we give them a treatment summary that includes all your medicines, doses, and other treatments. We make sure nothing falls through the cracks,” she adds.

“We help you get back to the life you love once your treatment is done,” says Dr. Tsai. “If you have weakness or debilitation, we get you into physical therapy. If you’re in pain, we might try massage, acupuncture or physical therapy to help manage your symptoms. If you have a cognitive deficit or memory loss from chemo or radiation, we have you work with an occupational therapist or a behavioral specialist to help get your brain functioning as well as possible.”

For some cancer survivors, the diagnosis brings the realization that life’s not infinite. And maybe your career or your relationships don’t serve you well. What worked in the past may not fit who you are on the other side of cancer. In those cases, we connect you to a career coach or relationship counselor to help you figure out your next steps.

Living with a terminal diagnosis 

There is no “correct” way to react to the news that you have terminal cancer. You may experience a gamut of emotions – ranging from disbelief to acceptance. And that’s OK. “We help you focus on living your best life today and every day during the time you have left,” says Dr. Tsai.

Protect your mental and emotional health

A cancer diagnosis often prompts the classic stages of grief. You may go through denial, anger, and hopefully, acceptance.

“It’s not unusual to grieve your diagnosis and how it affects your life. You can worry about your mortality. You can have sorrow over losing a body part, like a breast or a uterus,” says Dr. Tsai. “Cancer does physically impair you sometimes. But that’s just the surface of it. It can also cause anxiety, depression and fatigue. After a cancer diagnosis and during treatment, it’s essential to address your emotional and physical health if you want true healing.”

Caring for the caregivers

 Cancer does not just affect the person going through treatment. It affects everyone around them.

“Partners or spouses often have the hardest struggle, especially if they’re primary caregivers. They see their loved ones suffering and wish they could take that on themselves. We see a lot of caregiver fatigue and caregiver burnout,” says Dr. Tsai.

“I had a patient who was older and wasn’t in great health before her cancer. She tolerated chemotherapy poorly and had many problems, including nausea, low blood counts, weakness and fatigue. She was basically bedridden for months. And her poor husband was just really struggling to help her and he was exhausted. For cases like that, it’s about how we can get them some support,” she explains.

“If you need counseling and support, we can connect you to counselors and social workers who are specially trained to handle the unique needs of cancer patients and their families. If you need respite, we have some programs to help, including Meals on Wheels, transportation, home health care and things like that,” she adds.

A life-changing experience

Once you hear that ‘C-word,’ you can never unhear it. “We understand that cancer changes your life forever,” says Dr. Tsai. “Sometimes, it’s a real awakening. You’re not the same person on the other side of a cancer diagnosis and treatment as you were before. Yes, cancer is a bad thing. But it’s also an opportunity to make changes in your life that will really help you in the long run.”

Supportive cancer care

The Swedish Cancer Institute provides a wide range of services and therapies dedicated to helping you navigate your cancer journey successfully. We work with you to create a survivorship care plan that focuses on improving your quality of life with services to help heal your mind, body, and spirit.

Care options include:

  • Acupuncture
  • Art therapy
  • Cancer Education Center
  • Cancer rehabilitation
  • Community partnerships
  • Counseling and support
  • Knit for Life
  • Massage therapy
  • Music therapy
  • Naturopathic medicine
  • Nutrition counseling
  • Palliative care
  • Survivorship Clinic

Find a doctor

If you have questions about cancer survivorship, contact the Swedish Cancer Institute. We can accommodate both in-person and virtual visits.

Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult a doctor virtually, you have options. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

Additional resources 

Cancer Survivorship

Coping with Cancer: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Lessons from an Employee Cancer Survivor

Don’t Get Stressed, Get SMART!

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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About the Author

The Swedish Cancer Team is committed to bringing you the most up-to-date insights about treatments, prevention, care and support available. We know cancer diagnoses strain you both mentally and physically, and we hope to provide a small piece of hope to you or your loved ones who are fighting the cancer battle with useful and clinically-backed advice.

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