When you begin cancer treatment and the flurry of appointments and tests start, it’s easy to get fixated on the timeline and the plan. Staying focused on an end date or checking off how many more chemo and radiation appointments you have makes it more tolerable. You’re getting closer; moving to different phases of your treatment, and are one day closer to cancer being behind you.
But plans can change.
It happens to many cancer patients: things are humming along and then there’s a revision to the plan. This could mean more chemo infusions, another surgery, a new drug, or a new plan of attack. The initial response to change tends to be let down, frustrated, or even a little hopeless. Maybe you had September 30th circled on your calendar as your end date, and it changes to January 30th. Maybe radiation got added to your plan. Perhaps your chemo drug isn’t working as expected and you need to start a new regimen. Maybe you need another surgery you weren’t counting on.
Yes, it is demoralizing to hear that the goal line has moved. But stay positive and don’t panic: most cancer treatment timelines and plans change. It's totally normal.
I remember a big surprise for me waiting at home when I came home from my “last” chemo infusion. My kids made signs, there were balloons and tons of flowers everywhere. My family was thinking: this is it! The hard part is over! I came through the door so happy to see all of the love, but I had also just learned that my medical team decided on another six months of chemo. This wasn't my last day after all. It was a letdown in the moment – I was only halfway through?! But it ended up being for the best. There were still some cells my doctor was concerned about. I finished the extra treatment and am doing great years later. Sometimes treatment plans need that extra insurance policy for peace of mind.
Plans changing doesn’t mean things are dire, it means that your medical team is engaged and wants to try everything they can to attack the cancer. How your exact cancer and how your body will respond to cancer treatment needs to be observed and refined as you go. The blood draws, scans, and testing during treatment help to indicate if there are areas to course correct. All of this fine tuning is a good thing: you are getting a bespoke treatment based on how your body is tolerating and responding to treatment. No two people or two plans are identical!
Not only is cancer a moving target within your body, how the medical community attacks cancer is constantly evolving as well. Maybe you’re at the tail end of your cancer treatment but a promising new therapy has just been approved for your specific cancer. You may be “done” in your mind, but doing regular infusions of this cutting-edge drug may reduce your chance of recurrence dramatically. Just because it was not a part of the original plan shouldn’t stop you from exploring promising treatments. We’re lucky to live in a time when cancer treatment is evolving rapidly – take advantage of it when you can.
Goals keep humans hopeful, focused, and motivated. Dates are necessary for sanity and to measure progress. Just try to not have an unhealthy attachment to dates. Keep telling yourself “the plan is to be done this fall,” or “when I’m complete with my original plan, we will discuss if there are any next steps.” End dates are a bridge to cross when your body is ready, not when the calendar says so.
A friend of mine completed her surgery, chemo, and radiation and was elated. What she wasn’t expecting was being on a daily medication for five years after treatment. This initially felt like a blow and something she didn’t want to do. But as she researched the drug and what it did to keep recurrences down for her specific cancer, she realized this was for the best. She had gone through so much – and she didn’t want to wash all the work away at the (surprise) last step in the process.
The chemistry of our unique bodies, cancer cells, medications, radiation and surgery is unique. Your medical team may have 75% of the plan “down” – what’s typical and expected. But there is always wiggle room. Sometimes this isn’t necessarily shared up front because your doctors want you focused and feeling like there is predictability to the situation. Do not stress if things don’t go exactly as planned – cancer is a big disruptor and it has to be dealt with accordingly to give you the best chance of a long, healthy life.
Survivors I know have a great way of thinking about cancer treatment: it’s never really over. Yes, most chemo and radiation and surgeries have end dates. What these survivors are focused on is length of life and quality of life that takes advantage of promising new findings. These survivors are open to anything new or promising that helps keep their cancers at bay. This could mean being a candidate for ongoing immunotherapy or hormone infusions. This could mean following a new diet plan or a fitness regimen that long-term survivors swear by. Cancer is rarely a checkbox for survivors – something that’s in the rearview mirror that they never think of again. It will always be with you and in the back of your mind – even when you’re healthy and thriving. Having an approach that living cancer-free is a lifetime commitment will keep you feeling some authority over your health, and keep you from forcing cancer on to a timeline.
If you are feeling angry or even hopeless about changes to your plan and timeline, get these feelings out. Writing in a daily journal helps get the unsettled feelings out of your body. Speaking with a cancer therapist can give you excellent hacks for staying calm and focused during a wobbly time. One of the best things to do is seek out a survivor of your cancer. Read their story, or if you know them – talk on the phone or over a coffee. Nothing is more powerful than hearing from someone who’s been in your shoes, and who is thriving today. And the more thriving cancer survivors you talk to you’ll realize many of them had their plans change too. Check out the Do Cancer Survivor Stories and our Directory to find resources for navigating your specific cancer.