Since pancreatic cancer causes no symptoms in its early stages, it is frequently caught in a later stage when survival odds are diminished. Yet, the number of pancreatic cancer survivors is increasing due to advances in treatment. Surviving pancreatic cancer carries unique challenges in the months and years following treatment. Pancreatic cancer survivors might face depression, stress from changing social roles, fatigue, cognitive issues, sexual problems, and other lingering physical effects from vigorous chemotherapy.
Depending on the degree of spread when it is diagnosed, pancreatic cancer is often treated with surgery and chemotherapy, usually gemcitabine or fluorouracil (5-FU). Both of these cancer drugs have multiple side effects, some of which can linger for months or years after stopping use, which surprises many pancreatic cancer survivors.
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Some possible side effects that may begin during use and linger after stopping the drug include fatigue; “chemobrain,” or memory problems caused by chemotherapy drugs; nerve damage; infertility; and heart or kidney failure. Other problems may not present until after stopping the drugs and may include lung disease, cataracts, osteoporosis, or further cancers. Lymphedema, or swelling and pain from blockage of lymphatic fluid, can result from surgery.
Although beating the cancer is what every pancreatic survivor has been hoping for, the psychological effects of transitioning from patient to survivor presents many unique challenges. At diagnosis, pancreatic cancer patients frequently describe feeling as if they've been given a death sentence and stop thinking about long-term plans. Feelings of hopelessness, anger, or depression are common.
As treatment progresses, relationships with friends and family become highly focused on the patient. During recovery, relationships change again, and frequently the attention and support may diminish with time as the pancreatic cancer survivor becomes healthy again.
Coping with these challenges take effort but can be done. Rebuilding strong support networks with multiple social connections is important. A healthy diet and regular exercise will help pancreatic cancer survivors to combat lingering physical symptoms as well as improve mood. If depression continues, therapy and antidepressants can help.
It is important to remember that not all pancreatic cancer survivors will experience all, or even most, of these challenges. Some may not experience many psychological or physical challenges at all. In fact, many cancer survivors experience an increased appreciation for life and a surge of strength for responding to challenges, making life a richer experience than before their cancer experience.