Doctors should prepare patients for post-treatment troubles

By Brandon Smith

Even when Cancer treatment is a “success,” a survivor’s life is often never the same.

A recent study funded by the National Cancer Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than one-third of 12.6 million cancer survivors will have physical or mental health problems post-treatment. A report of the study said it is estimated that 3.3 million survivors have poor physical health and 1.4 million of them have poor mental health.

Those numbers are interesting, but they don’t tell the whole story. It’s simply not enough to say that people report difficulties after treatment because that is obvious. As far as mental health goes, I’m sure people who report physical challenges feel the emotional strain equally or on a greater scale. Anyone who experiences trouble eating, sleeping or getting out of bed in the morning is probably unhappy to some extent.

Being alive and knowing that a terrible disease has been conquered is certainly reason to rejoice, but when a cancer survivor becomes aware of the difficulties that follow treatment, it can become taxing on his or her psyche.

“Dancing with the Stars” co-host Brooke Burke-Charvet recently announced in an ABC interview that she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. She said during the interview that it took her a while to “wrap her head around it,” but she was ready to face treatment because her doctors said it was a “good kind” of cancer to have.

I scoffed at her statement, not because she is probably grossly unprepared for what is about to become a huge obstacle in her star-studded life, but for a much more fundamental reason that is not

advertised by the health care system: Life after treatment is stressful and uncertain.

Cancer is such a dreaded word, and people fear its implication. It’s right up there with plague, devastation and death. Doctors do their best to alleviate the instantaneous stress that accompanies being diagnosed with cancer, but my quarrel is with their knowledge of what life is like after treatment and the lack of preparation they give patients to deal with it.

I have had my own experience with this. Thyroid cancer is rare, and it was especially shocking to my doctors when they found it spreading through my neck when I was 16 years old. Like Burke-Charvet, I was told not to worry because it’s a “good kind” of cancer. My doctor said if I was sitting in a room with a bunch of people and someone was passing out cancer, I’d raise my hand for this kind.

There are many different types of cancer, and all of them are bad. There are benign tumors, of course, but those aren’t really cancer.

When a doctor tells a patient that they have a “good” cancer, they mean one thing: It is survivable. But survivability never correlates with recurrence. According to the NCI, thyroid cancer has the highest rate of recurrence because of its connection to the endocrine system, which produces and distributes important hormones to the brain and immune system.

As comforting as my doctors’ words may have sounded, they did nothing to help me envision the future. Daily medication, waves of fatigue, unpredictable and uncomfortable changes in body temperature and, above all, the stress of thinking, “What if this comes back?” are just a few of the things I deal with, which is mild compared to what many other survivors experience.

Then there is the cost incurred by a “good” cancer. An annual medical bill of more than $300,000 has put my family over the edge. Money may not be an issue for someone like Burke-Charvet, but a cost like that can be crippling to millions of middle-to-lower class and elderly people dealing with the disease.

I find it irresponsible for a physician to tell a patient not to worry because everything is going to be just peachy. Looking back, I wish I was told what to expect post-treatment. When I’m awaiting the semiannual call from the doctor to tell me if my report is negative or positive, my mind becomes fixated on what it would be like to go through it all over again.

Physicians have a greater responsibility than just treating patients in the moment. They need to help people make provisions for the road that lies ahead, or least steer them in the direction of those who can help them prepare better. There is more to treating cancer than ridding the body of

the disease. A person’s mind is affected most.