Depression and anxiety aren’t the only challenges that cancer survivors face. Other symptoms include fatigue and cognitive impairments, which includes effects on memory, attention, processing speed and attention. These can all take a toll on work and the home life. Survivors call it “cancer brain.”
One recent afternoon, Jewell spent more than an hour recounting his experiences with doctors, nurses and even the cleaning staff of Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. He spoke with gratefulness and admiration of the staff’s care and compassion.
Then, in the middle of the sentence, he forgot the name of the center.
“This can be frustrating,” Jewell said. “Sometimes I’ll be in the middle of a conversation with somebody and I’ve forgotten the name of the person I’m speaking with.”
He follows his doctors’ recommendations and does crossword and jigsaw puzzles and reads voraciously to improve his cognitive abilities.
In women, cancer treatment may induce physical changes that can lead to mental and emotional struggles about body image, sex and motherhood. Breast cancer survivors, even those who have had reconstructive surgery after a mastectomy, still may struggle with body image issues and have a low libido.
Lara said it’s hard to accept her new body as a breast cancer survivor.
“I don’t wear cute shirts anymore because of the scars,” she said. “I had to throw out so much of my clothes.”
And younger women may prematurely go through menopause and face infertility as a result of the treatment.
“A lot of women aren’t planning on having children by choice and when this happens, that choice gets taken away,” Kumar said. “There’s a lot of grief that happens. Women grieve the children they can’t have.”
He suggests younger female patients consider harvesting their eggs before undergoing treatment, to keep their options open. Currier said medication can address night sweats or hot flashes that are normal during menopause.
Therapy or counseling, both individual and in a group setting, may help patients learn to cope; survivors should speak with their oncologists about a referral, as cancer institutes often have mental health specialists. Exercise, yoga or meditation also can boost both physical and emotional health — both for the patient and caregiver.
On a recent Thursday, Jewell and his wife Karen tried a stress-relief class at Sylvester. Jewell said he closed his eyes and relaxed easily. Karen, who is his primary caregiver, struggled to calm her mind.
“I don’t know how to relax,” she said. “It’s difficult not to think of things, of whether we’ll make it to our next appointment in time. I think this will be good for me.”
As for the anxiety about giving up work, Jewell said he’s come to accept this as another facet of “the new normal.” Resting at home instead of going to work has helped him gain weight, so he’s not complaining too much.
And he has found a fulfilling way to occupy his time: He’s becoming a volunteer at Sylvester. He’ll serve as a mentor to other patients, to help talk through some of the mental and emotional challenges he’s already experienced, and serve as a liaison between them and their doctors.
“I couldn’t change my situation, but I could change the way I looked at the situation,” Jewell said. “And I think that’s an important philosophy that I can show patients who are going through the same journey.”