Now that you have completed or almost finished your cancer treatment, you are likely looking forward to returning to life BC (before cancer). But some things have changed. Depending on the type of cancer you have and the treatments you have received, you may have side effects or an increased risk of other conditions, such as heart disease or osteoporosis. You may also find yourself worrying about your cancer coming back or a new type of cancer developing.
At the UChicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center, we are committed to walking side by side our patients, both during and after treatment. Our team includes physicians and other clinicians who specialize in treating various health effects of cancer and cancer treatment, including heart problems, nerve issues (i.e., tingling and numbness), fertility and sexual concerns. In addition, our supportive oncology team can provide nutritional advice, physical and occupational therapy and other support services. Counseling and psychotherapy services are also available based on your insurance.
Our clinician-researchers are busy uncovering ways to reduce treatment side effects that can potentially help current patients and future survivors. For instance, Tara Henderson, MD, MPH, helped discover that decreasing radiation dosages can lower the risk of second cancers among childhood cancer survivors. In addition, Mark Ratain, MD, and his colleagues have been working to lower the high costs of cancer treatment (i.e., the financial toxicity) by reducing the amount of expensive medicines patients take. Patients are seeing similar results despite taking fewer drugs.
What to Expect as a Cancer Survivor
As a cancer survivor, you are joining a large and growing community. By 2026, the number of cancer survivors is expected to reach more than 20 million thanks to major advances in diagnosis and treatment.
To minimize future risks and to ensure the best quality of life, cancer survivors need to arm themselves with information about their health and collaborate with their healthcare providers.
Our Childhood and Adolescent and Young Adult Cancer Survivor’s Center is geared to the unique survivorship needs of patients who develop cancer before age 21 and survive at least two years. Our multidisciplinary team will provide specific advice on how you can prevent and treat long-term health effects of cancer treatments.
Patients who develop other types of cancer after age 40 should talk with their cancer team to identify a personalized care plan for follow-up care and screenings, based on the latest evidence-based practices, as well as your own personal needs. Recommendations might include some or all of the following:
- What cancer screenings you should get and how often
- Treatment for any current symptoms or side effects of your cancer or treatment
- Whether you have an elevated risk of developing a health condition, such as heart disease, osteoporosis or a secondary cancer as a result of your cancer treatment, along with recommended preventive and treatment measures
- A recommendation for genetic testing and counseling for you and your loved ones, which can be provided at UChicago Medicine’s premier Cancer Risk and Prevention Clinic
- Referrals to specialists who can provide specialized care for side effects and/or other conditions caused by cancer treatment
- Recommendations for nutrition counseling, occupational therapy, psychological or psychiatric counseling and other supportive oncology services.
You may also choose to come to UChicago Medicine for some or all of your follow-up care. We can deliver your care plan to outside providers upon the patient’s request. A copy will also be given to the patient and is available in MyChart.
Common Concerns of Cancer Survivors
Many cancer survivors struggle with the following concerns. Here’s how to find help for these issues.
Unfortunately, financial stress is becoming a frequent part of the cancer journey. Financial assistance may be available, depending on various factors:
- UChicago Medicine has a financial assistance program that provides discounts on medical bills to patients. Our patient financial services staff can help you determine if you qualify for a discount based on financial need. They can also help you with any insurance coverage questions or concerns you may have. You can reach them at 773-702-6664 or toll-free at 1-844-843-3594.
- National and local service organizations may be able to offer financial aid to individuals with cancer to help pay for medical bills, medications and treatment-related travel and housing expenses. You can call our supportive oncology team at 773-702-8845 to identify potential organizations to appeal to for assistance recommendations. The team includes an American Cancer Society Navigator and a social worker who can help you. You might also check out the financial resources compendium from the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
It can help to talk to a mental health professional. You can arrange for counseling for yourself or a loved one through our supportive oncology team by calling 773-702-8845.
Many cancer survivors also join local support groups that allow them to share their feelings with other cancer patients and survivors. (See the list of resources below for links to local organizations that offer support groups.)
It’s important to talk to your medical oncologist about your health risks and identify steps you can take to relieve or prevent these conditions and side effects. Your oncologist may refer you to other physician specialists and/or recommend regular screenings and follow-up appointments.
Research suggests that a diet rich in vitamins, minerals and other nutrients can help prevent cancer, heart disease and other conditions. In general, try to follow a balanced and nutritious diet. The MyPlate approach, developed by the United States Department of Agriculture, offers easy-to-follow guidelines. Try to include protein (e.g., meat, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, nuts, legumes) with every meal. Protein helps the body fight infection and build/maintain strength.
Otherwise, no special diet needs to be followed unless your medical oncology team recommends specific changes. If you have any diet needs or questions, you can seek nutrition counseling from our oncology dietitian. This is recommended if you are experiencing any of the following symptoms:
- Weight loss
- Persistent diarrhea, nausea or vomiting
- Decreased appetite/oral intake
- Problems with feeding tubes
- Difficulty chewing/swallowing
- Dry mouth
Our oncology dietitian will conduct a thorough nutrition assessment and counsel you on how to relieve troubling symptoms and maintain a healthy diet.
Cancer survivors may benefit from following these disease prevention strategies:
- Maintain a healthy weight. If you need help losing weight, consider contacting our weight loss specialists.
- Stop smoking cigarettes or using nicotine products, if applicable. If you need help quitting, consider enrolling in our No Smoker Left Behind Program. You should also avoid second-hand smoke.
- Try to limit or not drink alcohol to help decrease the risk of cancer recurrence and reduce caloric intake.
- Engage in regular exercise. We encourage regular exercise for 150 minutes weekly, as tolerated by individual patients. Patients who have not exercised in a while should first talk with a primary care physician about any exercise precautions. UChicago Medicine supports two exercise programs on the south side of Chicago, and the Chicago Park District offers many free or low-cost fitness options.
- Follow safe sun practices when outdoors.
- Get all screenings and checkups recommended by your medical oncologist and primary care doctor.
If you have any questions about any specific prevention strategies or alternative therapies that you have read about or want to try, talk to your medical oncologist or primary care physician. There is a lot of advice being offered on the Internet and elsewhere. Some of it is backed by evidence. But other advice is not.
Resources for Cancer Survivors
While your cancer team can help you with many health issues related to your cancer or cancer treatment, they may refer you to other UChicago Medicine specialists for specific concerns, including the following:
- For childhood, adolescent, and young adult cancer survivors: Comer Children’s Childhood, Adolescent, and Young Adult Cancer Survival Center is an integrated program for pediatric and adult survivors of cancer that developed before age 40.
- For breast cancer survivors: The Breast Cancer Survivorship Follow-Up Clinic (PDF) is designed to assist you with all your post-treatment needs.
- For genetic testing: The Cancer Risk and Prevention Clinic is dedicated to identifying and caring for individuals who have an increased risk of cancer due to family history, medical and genetic factors, and/or lifestyle influences.
- For heart issues related to cancer treatment: Cardiologists Jeanne DeCara, MD, and Tamar Polonsky, MD, specialize in cardio-oncology, which is the diagnosis and management of heart problems following chemotherapy and radiation.
- For kidney issues related to cancer treatment: Jay Koyner, MD, specializes in treating kidney damage and disease.
- For pain issues: The UChicago Medicine Pain Clinic specializes in managing cancer-related pain.
- For skin issues: Our dermatologists have extensive experience diagnosing and treating all types of skin problems.
- For gynecologic services: Learn about our program for gynecologic care of cancer survivors.
- For sexual health: UChicago Medicine has the only clinic in the Chicago area, called the Program in Integrative Sexual Medicine (PRISM), designed to prevent, diagnose and treat sexual problems in female cancer survivors and patients. Certified sex therapists and psychologists are also available through supportive oncology.
- For fertility issues: UChicago Medicine has an oncofertility program to help cancer patients with fertility challenges.
- For mental health issues: Psycho-oncologists Marie Tobin, MD, and Amy Siston, PhD, specialize in the mental health of cancer patients and survivors.
- For supportive health services: Reach out to our supportive oncology team for help with the following:
- Nutrition counseling
- Assistance arranging transportation and other community services
- Smoking cessation programs
- Palliative care
The following organizations in the Chicago area offer support groups, social activities, healthy lifestyle activities, exercise sessions, educational workshops and other resources to anyone impacted by cancer:
- In Chicago: UI Health’s Wellness House offers programs at the Mile Square Health Center at the UI Health Cancer Clinic. Also Gilda’s Club Chicago has centers in the Chicago Loop and in Oak Lawn.
- In northern suburbs: The Cancer Wellness Center is located in Northbrook and has satellite programs in Grayslake, Park Ridge and Libertyville.
- In western suburbs: The Wellness House serves the Hinsdale area and facilitates programs around the Chicago area.
- In far western suburbs: The Living Well Cancer Resource Center is based in Geneva.
- In southern suburbs: The Jennifer Fallick Cancer Support Center is located in Homewood, and satellite programs are offered in Mokena.
- In northwest Indiana: The Cancer Resource Centre serves Munster and surrounding areas.
- After Breast Cancer Diagnosis (ABCD)
- American Cancer Society (ACS) Survivorship Resources
- Cancer.net Survivorship Resources
- Cancer Index
- Cancer Support Community
- LIVESTRONG Fertility
- National Cancer Institute (NCI) - Facing Forward: Life After Cancer Treatment
- National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) – Patient and Caregiver Resources
- National Library of Medicine (NLM) - Genetics Home Reference
- Sisters Network, Inc. – A National African American Breast Cancer Survivorship Organization
- Susan G. Komen breast cancer foundation
- Young Survival Coalition (YSC)
Coronavirus Information for Cancer Patients, Survivors and Caregivers
University of Chicago Medicine medical oncologist and Chief of the Section of Hematology and Oncology, Sonali M. Smith, MD, and gynecologic oncologist Nita Karnik Lee, MD, MPH, answer common questions about coronavirus for cancer patients, cancer survivors and their loved ones.