American Association for Cancer Research

Scientist on Science

Survivorship and Side Effects

A talk with Dr. Electra D. Paskett

Dr. Electra D. PaskettFor cancer survivors worldwide, some of the biggest challenges begin after their cancer treatment ends. For some, the disease or side effects of treatment can trigger physical, emotional, mental and practical changes. Managing and coping with these adverse effects can be difficult. Survivors may be disease free but are they actually free from their disease?

Electra D. Paskett, PhD, MPH, is the associate director of population sciences at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center and is a cancer survivor. Her work focuses heavily on survivorship and helping people improve their quality of life after cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Paskett shared her expertise on how to manage and cope with side effects from cancer treatment with the AACR’s Survivor and Patient Advocacy (SPA) Department.

Some side effects may come as late as 20 years after treatment finishes, thus they are also called late effects. If a survivor then knows the warning signs (s)he will be able to then seek treatment for that side effect earlier—when chances for managing the side effect are good—rather than later and even causing more worry and anxiety as well as pain. There are very good treatments for some side effects, and some treatments will only lessen effects. Remember, the science of survivorship is fairly new and we don't have all the answers yet! You know your body better than anyone else, so if something is just not right, ask questions and find out what is going on and what you can do to manage it! 

The best way to cope with side effects depends on 1) knowing what to expect; and 2) being able to do something to address the side effects. The most common side effects are: pain, fatigue, depression, anxiety, and then certain side effects based on the cancer type and treatment received. The best way to know what to expect or look for is to ask your doctor and also get a survivorship care plan. The plan will list not only the treatment you received for your cancer, but also the side effects that you can look out for based on your cancer and the treatments you received. 

There are also lifestyle modifications a survivor can make that have been proven to improve quality of life and in some observational studies, to improve survival rates: stop smoking, get regular exercise, walk at least one hour per day, watch your diet, drink alcohol in moderation, get good sleep, and lose weight, if necessary.  

When I was diagnosed with my first bout of breast cancer in 1997, survivorship was not a big area. It was hardly a word used to describe a group of cancer patients. I developed lymphedema in my hand and went through the standard treatment at that time. Since my doctor told me what to look for and I was treated promptly, my case was very mild. With treatments for my second breast cancer diagnosis, I was vigilant and able to control the lymphedema—but it is an everyday practice. Thus, being a survivor means adopting a vigilant behavior as well as maintaining a healthy lifestyle so survivors can be survivors for a long time to come.


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