Making it past the finish line after walking in cancer’s footsteps isn’t just a celebration of life, it’s a seeking of self

From the moment you find out that you have cancer, it becomes a part of your life forever. The problem is, for most people, cancer survival is from diagnosis to remission, but the reality is that it’s there for the rest of a patient’s life. Once diagnosed, cancer stays with a person every single day, whether in their thoughts, actions, or with their diagnosis. Yet few systems and coping mechanisms are in place to help people take the steps beyond the finish line – from the day they end the treatment phase to when they enter into the maintenance phase.

There are several medical and psychological effects of cancer and its treatment that have been diagnosed and recognised over the years. Most recently, survivorship has become recognised as a distinct phase of cancer trajectory, but often comes at a psychological price.

An opinion piece was recently shared on Harvard Health on three common post-cancer reactions. The first, Damocles Syndrome, describes how cancer survivors can feel as if it hangs over their head like the Sword of Damocles – they battle to make decisions that allow their lives to move forward. Should they marry? Should they have children? Can they?

The second, fear of recurrence, an equally debilitating challenge is fearing a recurrence with every sneeze, ache, pain and headache, and that it is a sign the cancer has returned – it’s exhausting.

Finally, survivor guilt, are those who battle to come to terms with how they made it through while others they met along the way did not.

Each of these challenges is no easy feat to overcome, but the first step is to recognise that they can be overcome.

“There is an emotional burden that comes with cancer,” explains Linda Greeff, Oncology Social Worker from Cancercare Rondebosch. “The psychosocial and emotional toll starts from the day that cancer is found and diagnosed to the post-treatment phase. Patients are quite alone – they have surgery where they lose their breasts or their testicles, they are uncertain if the cancer has spread, they run the gauntlet of treatment that’s either curative or palliative, and then they stop. Now, they are expected to just carry on with their lives, but they need to develop coping strategies, find someone to help them recognise their fears and give them the tools they need to rebuild their life. It’s so important that they find someone to talk to throughout every phase.”

According to Greeff, many people battle to adapt to life once they’ve completed the hard run through the obstacles thrown up by cancer diagnosis, surgery, medical terminology and treatment. Some may have lost a limb or had a mastectomy or had physically damaging surgery, while many suffer from sexual changes that impact their relationships and self-esteem.

“People can develop a very deep depression or suffer from a midlife crisis as they adjust to their post-cancer lives,” say Greeff who works closely with Medical Specialist Holdings (MSH) and the Independent Clinical Oncology Network (ICON) as many of the cancer patients are referred to their facilities for cancer treatment. “They have to relook their lifestyles and take stock and regroup. This is when they need a lot of counselling and support. It’s worth noting that many people suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and counselling sessions can help them debrief and recover. This is where an oncology social worker plays a vital role; we help people come to terms with their new lives.”

Another of the complex layers of emotion that can affect patients is a sense of grief. Mourning the life that they will never have again. Once cancer has walked in the door, life changes forever. For patients who are palliative, they need to come to terms with their diagnosis and be proactive about how they approach the end. Greeff points out that those who accept their diagnosis and want a good death are usually those who focus on making memories, setting goals and giving their friends and family closure.

“People who do this, die in peace and the families have less complex grief reactions because they have had closure,” says Greeff. “The same applies to those who have completed their treatments and need to find ways of coming to terms with their lives as they stand today. They need a strategy to navigate this complex field of emotions and reactions in a positive way. I advise people to create a cancer action plan that outlines their medical needs and follow-ups and how they plan to cope with these.”

It is throughout the cancer journey that the oncology social worker plays a crucial role. From the moment a patient is diagnosed and through every phase of diagnosis, treatment, and post-cancer care, an oncology social worker is uniquely placed to understand the emotional and psychosocial impact of the disease and to help cancer patients find a positive route through the experience. While cancer may be complex, the oncology social worker helps to unravel these complexities and make the journey far easier, more manageable and significantly more positive.

While understanding the role of the social worker in the cancer journey, it bears a reminder that from the moment you close the door on treatment, be prepared to undertake a new journey; a journey that allows you to rediscover who you are post-cancer and where your new dreams lie. The most important thing to note is this – don’t judge yourself for not skipping away with joy – this is another hard part of the journey.

About MSH:
The Medical Specialist Holdings (MSH) is a South African based company that offers oncology related clinical, administrative, and business management services to oncology practices across Africa.
MSH – a holding company of the Independent Clinical Oncology Network (ICON), Equra Health and ISIMO – aims to champion the shift from fee-for-service to value-based health care to improve the patient experience.

Communications contact:
Thokozile Mdlalose
MSH Communications
Tel: 021 944 3600

Ernst Marais
MSH Chief Operating Officer
Tel: 021 944 3600