Cancer Treatment Aftercare & Follow-up
It is common for a cancer patient to need additional and ongoing check-ups after they have completed a course of cancer treatment. The oncology teams at Alta Bates Summit are always available to prior patients who have questions about their health or follow-up care, and encourage patients to keep track of their scheduled follow-up appointments as prescribed by their physicians.
Ending cancer treatments can be both exciting and challenging. Most people are relieved to be finished with the demands of treatment, but many also feel a sense of sadness and worry. Many are concerned that the cancer will come back and they wonder about what they should do after treatment.
When treatment ends, people often expect life to return to the way it was before they were diagnosed with cancer. This is a possibility, but it is also rarely the case. Cancer treatment may change you physically and you may not be able to do some of the activities you once did easily. You may view yourself as being somehow different. One of the hardest parts about completing treatment is not knowing what to expect.
What Is "Normal" After Treatment?
Those who complete treatment describe the first few months as a time of change as you discover what is “normal” for you now. Your new "normal" may require that you make changes in the way you eat, your activities, and your sources of support. Life beyond illness is unique to each individual. Although you may not like the term “cancer survivor” or you may feel that it does not apply to you, the word “survivor” refers to life beyond a life-changing event – in this case, illness and treatment.
We encourage you to be active in getting the information and support you need after treatment. Look at the National Cancer Institute website for more information and the suggested articles listed below.
- Facing Forward Series: Life After Cancer Treatment
This publication covers post-treatment issues such as follow-up medical care, physical and emotional changes, changes in social relationships, and workplace issues.
- Follow-up Care: Questions and Answers
A fact sheet that provides information about follow-up medical care for patients who have completed cancer treatment. NCI Fact Sheet 7.48
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What Is Follow-Up Care & Why Is It Important?
Follow-up care is important because it helps identify changes in health. The main purpose of follow-up care is to check for the return of cancer in the primary site (a recurrence), or the spread of cancer to another part of the body (metastasis).
Follow-up care involves regular medical checkups that include a review of a patient’s medical history and a physical exam. Imaging procedures; endoscopy (the use of a thin, lighted tube to examine organs inside the body); or lab tests may be part of follow-up care for certain cancers. Physical therapy, occupational or vocational therapy, pain management, support groups, or home care may also be included in your follow-up care plan.
Follow-up care can also help to identify the development of a second cancer, unknown or unusual treatment side effects, and late effects of cancer treatments (side effects that develop months or years after treatment). Checkups help ensure that any changes in health are noted and treated if needed. Between scheduled visits, contact your doctor if you experience any health problems.
It’s important to note that cancer recurrences are not always detected during follow-up visits. Many times, recurrences are suspected or found by patients themselves between scheduled checkups. It is important for patients to be aware of changes in their health, and report any problems to their doctor. The doctor can determine whether the problems are related to the cancer, the treatment the patient received, or an unrelated health problem.
How Are Follow-up Care Schedules Planned?
Ongoing health needs are not the same for everyone. Follow-up care is individualized based on the type of cancer, the type of treatment received, and the person’s overall health. In general, people return to the doctor for follow-up appointments every 3 to 4 months during the first 2 to 3 years after treatment, and once or twice a year after that.
At these follow-up appointments, the doctor may recommend tests to check for recurrence or to screen for other types of cancer. In many cases, it is not clear that follow-up tests improve survival or quality of life. This is why it is important for the doctor to help determine what follow-up care plan is appropriate. The doctor may not need to perform any tests if the person appears to be in good physical condition and does not have any symptoms. It’s important for you to talk with your doctor about any questions or concerns related to the follow-up care schedule.
When planning a follow-up care schedule, consider who will provide the follow-up care and other medical care. Select a doctor with whom you feel comfortable. This may be the same doctor who provided your cancer treatment. For other medical care, you may continue to see a family medicine doctor or medical specialist as needed.
Some people might not have a choice in who provides their follow-up care. Some insurance plans pay for follow-up care only with certain doctors, and for a set number of visits. Patients may want to check their medical coverage plan to see what restrictions, if any, apply to their follow-up care.
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According to the National Cancer Institute, the term "survivorship" refers to the physical, psychosocial, and economic issues of cancer, from diagnosis until the end of life. It includes issues related to health care and follow up treatment, late effects of treatment, second cancers, and quality of life. A "survivor" is defined as one who remains alive and continues to function after overcoming difficulties or life-threatening diseases like cancer.
At Alta Bates Summit Medical Center, the relationships you formed with clinical staff during your treatments will move with you into survivorship. Your Radiation Oncologist, Medical Oncologist, RNs and many other staff members look forward to reconnecting with you at events such as the Annual Survivor Day, offered through the Comprehensive Cancer Center each year. Our Survivorship Support Group is available to those who have moved on from the treatment phase into follow-up care, and our libraries and education resources continue to be available to former patients, families and all who need information.
Each person has a unique response to having cancer, so use the information that feels right to you. We cannot cover everything in this section, but we encourage you to be active in getting the information and support you need.
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