It was December 2000 and one of the members of my women’s groups looked me in the my eyes and said: ‘I don’t know how you’re still standing.’ But I never felt that way. Yes, it had been a hard year—with more to come—but it wasn’t as if I had any control over the events that had occurred. And besides, I was still standing.Adrienne Dern, Cancer survivor
A letter from Laura
You’re done with treatment, whether the last stitch was removed from your incision, or you rang the “I finished chemo” bell, or heard the whir of the radiation therapy machine for the last time. You might feel like celebrating. You might also feel a little scared to be untethered from your treatment team. Maybe you want your life to go back to normal, or at least that “new normal” you’ve been hearing about. You may have heard your doctor say that sweet-sounding three-syllable word: “remission”.
According to the National Cancer Institute, remission means that the signs and symptoms of the cancer are reduced. Remission can be partial or complete. In a complete remission, all signs and symptoms of cancer have disappeared.1Understanding Cancer Prognosis. National Cancer Institute. June 17, 2019. Viewed March 31, 2022.
Remission is not the same thing as being cured of cancer. Cure means there are no traces of cancer after treatment and that cancer will never come back.2Understanding Cancer Prognosis. National Cancer Institute. June 17, 2019. Viewed March 31, 2022. We hope the latter is the case for you, but even if not, remission is an important step. Though it’s true that if some cancer cells remain in your body after treatment, they could cause the cancer to come back later, it’s also true that there’s much you can do to make your body less hospitable to those remaining cancer cells.
This may feel like an unsettling time. “Now what?” you might ask. The truth is, this can be a time when healing can take hold—healing from the damage that cancer and treatment has done; healing what was less than whole before your diagnosis, such as relationships with others or yourself, health imbalances or an unhealthy work life.
You are not quite the same as that person who stepped onto the cancer path after hearing “you have cancer.” Your world has been rocked, yet you’re here reading this, on the other side of treatment. You are a survivor. Now, you have the opportunity to become a thriver.
Below we offer a map of CancerChoices’ guidance on weaving in complementary and self-care to help you create a body, mind, and spirit that cancer doesn’t like; to help you transition from survivor to thriver.
Thank you for choosing CancerChoices to be a guide by your side. You are not alone.
Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS
Laura Pole is senior clinical consultant for CancerChoices. Laura is an oncology clinical nurse specialist who has been providing integrative oncology clinical care, navigation, consultation, and education services for over 40 years. She is the co-creator and co-coordinator of the Integrative Oncology Navigation Training at Smith Center for Healing and the Arts in Washington, DC. Laura also manages the “Media Watch Cancer News That You Can Use” listserv for Smith Center/Commonweal. In her role as a palliative care educator and consultant, Laura has served as statewide Respecting Choices Faculty for the Virginia POST (Physician Orders for Scope of Treatment) Collaborative as well as provided statewide professional education on palliative and end-of-life care for the Virginia Association for Hospices and Palliative Care.
For CancerChoices, Laura curates content and research, networks with clinical and organizational partners, brings awareness and education of integrative oncology at professional and patient conferences and programs, and translates research into information relevant to the patient experience as well as clinical practice.
Laura sees her work with CancerChoices as a perfect alignment of all her passions, knowledge and skills in integrative oncology care. She is honored to serve you.
Take care of difficult emotions and physical distress first
With each transition in the cancer experience, you might experience difficult emotions. Now that cancer treatment is complete and you are in remission, you may be feeling the cumulative effects of treatment, such as fatigue or pain and numbness in your hands and feet. You may have experienced big losses: a part of your body, your role in the family, your job, or your sense of stability and security.
Let’s stop now and take a moment to breathe slowly and deeply. With each inhalation, take in peace and comfort. With each exhalation, release what you don’t need. Take a few more of these slow, deep breaths. Now notice what you feel. Name the feelings and ask them what they are here to tell you. Listen compassionately. Make note of what the feelings have to say to you.
Once you have an idea of what you need, take care of the physical and emotional feelings of distress first. Try to build your new normal from a place of feeling centered and of ease and clarity.
We can guide you in managing difficult emotions and physical distress.
Get clear on what matters now
Once you’ve tended to your difficult emotions and physical distress, you’re in a better frame of mind to ask “What matters most to me now?” Going through cancer treatment has likely changed you and your life and shifted what’s important to you now. Figuring out what matters to you now may help you be clear on what you need and how to ask for what you need. This exploration is actually one of the 7 Healing Practices and a good place to start in caring for yourself in remission.
Once treatment is complete, you enter what’s often called “post-treatment survivorship.”
Learn about your choices
For some, remission may mean you no longer need active conventional cancer treatment. For others, it may mean continuing with some treatment designed to prevent recurrence, such as hormone therapy for breast cancer. Some want to include self-carelifestyle actions and behaviors that may impact cancer outcomes; examples include eating health-promoting foods, limiting alcohol, increasing physical activity, and managing stress practices and complementaryin cancer care, complementary care involves the use of therapies intended to enhance or add to standard conventional treatments; examples include supplements, mind-body approaches such as yoga or psychosocial therapy, and acupuncture therapies that pick up where the cancer treatment left off and help with recovery as well as reduce risk of recurrence.
We see your cancer choices falling into several “drawers.” On these pages you can open whichever drawer of choices seem relevant right now and learn more:
Cancer rehab: restoring function, building resilience
The cancer itself and/or the treatment may affect your ability to function on one or more levels. Rehabilitation can take many forms to help restore you to as much function as possible.
Your cancer may have caused difficulty breathing or pain and immobility and weakness. Rehab may be needed to improve your lung function, build strength, and improve mobility.
Surgery such as a colostomy may have changed a bodily function. Other surgeries may have removed a part of a limb. Rehab specialists can teach how to use and care for prostheses and other adaptive equipment.
Chemotherapy may have damaged nerves in your hands and feet. Physical and occupational therapy may help with restoring function and improving safety with movement.
Cancer fitness programs may improve your muscle function and range of motion and reduce fatigue and other treatment effects.
Ask your treatment team about rehabilitation services that might be right for you and how you can access them.
Optimizing your body terrain
Remission is often the most likely time that a person with cancer decides to make their body less supportive of cancer. You can pick up where conventional cancer treatment tends to leave off. Now that as much as possible of the cancer has been removed or killed by surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation, your internal anticancer mechanisms can be called on to remove or disable remaining cancer cells.
Supporting anticancer functions such as immunity and depriving the cancer of what it needs to grow and survive is what we call “optimizing your body terrain.”
What you can do now: self-care practices and complementary therapies
Once intensive cancer treatment has ended, many people with cancer want to know what they can do to keep the cancer away as well as restore their health or make themselves healthier than they were before cancer.
Self-care practices and complementary therapies can help you recover from the physical, mental, and emotional challenges posed by treatment. They may also help you become healthier and may make your body less supportive of cancer.
Follow-up appointments with your oncologist and lab tests are important after treatment ends, but we encourage you not to stop there.
7 Healing Practices
Self care through the 7 Healing Practices can create a safety net after treatment. Although these practices may not yet be routinely suggested by all conventional cancer treatment teams, they are becoming widely recognized in conventional cancer care as part of survivorship care. We strongly believe that self-care practices increase your chances of living better and perhaps longer.
Healthy habits include no smoking, limiting alcohol, hydrating, and managing your body weight.
Complementary therapies “complement”—complete or enhance—any conventional treatment you receive. They include natural products, off-label drugs, mind-body therapies, energy therapies such as acupuncture, and more.
Now that you’ve completed treatment, you might want to take a closer look at whether some complementary therapies could be right for you now.
In our reviews of complementary therapies, you’ll find assessment of their effects, not only in treating the cancer but also in reducing risks of cancer and recurrence, optimizing your body terrain, and managing side effects and promoting wellness—all important in remission. And we summarize the evidence behind use. Many of these therapies are available without prescription. However, note any cautions, and check with your doctor if indicated.
Traditional medicine systems
Traditional medical treatment systems come from the accumulated knowledge, skills and practices of indigenous cultures around the world. An example is traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Certain TCM therapies are effective and safe in bringing health into balance, thus optimizing terrain as well as managing lingering symptoms. In the West, TCM is commonly integrated into cancer care.
Your oncologist may have discouraged you from using complementary therapies during treatment for fear these therapies might interfere with your conventional treatment. In some cases, selected natural products should not be used with chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or surgery. Even though you may be done with these “heavy” conventional treatments, we still advise getting professional guidance on complementary therapies.
Ideally, you will find a professional to guide you in choosing therapies that are right for you now. A professional trained in use of complementary therapies can be an integrative oncology doctor, nurse, navigator, or advocate, or a professional in traditional medicine, naturopathic medicine, functional medicine or other approaches.
If you don’t have access to an integrative oncology professional, then think about what you want complementary therapies to help with: maintaining remission and reducing your risk of cancer recurrence (maintenance therapy), optimizing your body terrain, or managing symptoms and promoting wellness.
You can search or browse our reviews of complementary therapies for either summaries or detailed information about many complementary therapies. You’ll also find help in published programs and treatment approaches from experts.
Get more help
You may be saying to yourself, “I’d like some help navigating this site,” or “All this written information and guidance is helpful, but I also need more individualized one-on-one help.” Volunteer guides can lead you through this website, and advocates or navigators can help with the bigger unfamiliar territory of cancer.
We’re with you
No matter what you’re facing in your journey with cancer, you are not alone. We’re here to help and connect you with resources that will help you and those you love.
Our partners at Healing Circles are also available to invite you into a small group for support.
A cancer remission story: Adrienne
In December 2000, after months of treatment for ovarian and uterine cancer, starting with surgery, then radiation therapy followed by chemotherapy, 48 year-old Adrienne’s new life was about to begin, though she didn’t know it yet. All she knew was “I’m still standing.”
After recovering from the physical effects of treatment she went to the Smith Center’s Cancer Help Program retreat to explore what needed healing in her life.