Life After Cancer: Finding Your New Normal

Just because a person’s battle with cancer has been won doesn’t mean life goes back to normal.

“Friends and family who think once the patient is done with treatment and cancer-free, they generally think, ‘Oh good, Susie’s back!’ Well, Susie’s back, but she’s different now,” said Jill Johnson, nurse practitioner and coordinator of the ProMedica Cancer Survivor Center. “There’s a new normal for her that she probably hasn’t even discovered herself yet.”

A road map for survivorship

For the past seven years, Johnson has been part of ProMedica’s survivor program, which helps more than 200 survivors a year prepare for life after cancer. She works in tandem with Dr. Kenneth Krupp, an oncologist serving as the program’s director and interim medical director of the ProMedica Cancer Institute.

Together, Dr. Krupp and Johnson help survivors look at what life after cancer looks like and how they can live their best life going forward.

“They get a care plan, which is like a road map of what to expect moving forward, in terms of surveillance, monitoring, what symptoms to report, possible late-term effects of treatment,” Johnson said. Most patients choose a yearly follow-up appointment.

That “road map” may include an exercise regimen, such as the program’s Bridge to Fitness course — including yoga and conditioning classes — offered free of charge to those needing an outlet for staying active.

“For a lot of these people, if they didn’t have the program, they wouldn’t be exercising at all,” she said. “Exercise is one of the top activities that helps you reduce your risk of cancer.”

Dr. Krupp said the Survivor Center helps patients transition bridge the gap between their oncologist and primary care physician.

With the Survivor Clinic, patients don’t feel abandoned because there is still somebody who keeps an eye on them and works with the primary care doctor.

“A lot of patients, after they’ve had an oncologist for so long, they feel abandoned,” he said. “By having the Survivor Clinic, they don’t feel abandoned because there is still somebody who keeps an eye on them and works with the primary care doctor. It gives them more security.”

In addition to the emotional support, Dr. Krupp and Johnson help survivors know what physical symptoms to look for. Fifteen percent of survivors experience late-term cardiac side effects, as the toll from cancer drugs and radiation can take a toll on the heart that doesn’t reveal itself until years later.

Survivors may be going through a form of PTSD as well, according to Dr. Krupp.

“A lot of it is fear of recurrence,” he said. “And a lot of it is that they were traumatized by the surgery, the radiation, the chemo and it leads to depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances as well as sexual disturbances. We help screen for that and we have the mechanism to help them through it.

Understanding the journey

Johnson is able to relate to her patients because she knows what they’re going through. When she was 49, she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, caused by malignant plasma cells in bone marrow. After a seven-month recovery program, she returned to work just as the Survivor Center was forming. Although she had never planned to work in oncology—“I have always been fearful of cancer,” she said—she felt called to work at the center.

After initially being hesitant to reveal her medical history with patients, she now tells all of them that she now has a “new normal” as well.

“I have the understanding of what that journey is like,” Johnson said. “I can help validate that what they’re feeling and experiencing is perfectly normal. I can, in my own way, offer information and experiential things that other people who have not gone through it, cannot offer.”

Johnson acknowledges a turning point in her own recovery for inspiring her interactions with survivors. While being treated, her oncologist told her he had survived lymphoma.

“I thought, ‘Whoa, look at him,’” Johnson recalled. “He has survived, he’s an oncologist. I thought, ‘If he can do it, I can do it.’

Johnson hopes her patients walk out of her door saying the same thing.

To learn more about cancer treatment and cancer survivorship programs, visit ProMedica’s website or call Johnson 419-824-1476.