You or your loved one have just heard the good news: You are officially a leukemia survivor. After months to years of cancer treatment — including chemotherapy drugs, radiation therapy, or newer treatments and clinical trials — you have finally reached the ultimate milestone: remission. But despite this achievement, you may still have lingering questions.
One MyLeukemiaTeam member wrote about life after complete remission, noting that they no longer worry about “the little stuff” and are “now just happy to be alive with my husband who is my rock and our family.” When asked what she would recommend to others in the same situation, they stated: “Don’t sweat the little things. Enjoy everything, good and bad.”
You may have lingering questions about life after successful cancer treatment. Knowing what to expect can provide you reassurance in your journey.
Following remission, you may undergo consolidation treatment. Unlike induction therapy — which treats leukemia from diagnosis until remission — consolidation therapy is intended to kill any last remaining cancer cells that may still be hiding within the body. This is usually done over several months in cycles, using multiple different drugs, to prevent any remaining cancerous white blood cells from becoming resistant to any one of these medications.
Stem cell transplantation — also called a bone marrow transplantation — is a form of consolidation therapy for certain forms of leukemia, such as acute myeloid leukemia. Both your normal white blood cells and leukemia cells share a common ancestor: stem cells in your bones. Bone marrow transplantation transfers the marrow (containing stem cells) from a healthy person into your own bones, so the origin of the leukemia cells is replaced with normal cells. Stem cell and bone marrow transplants are usually reserved for people with a higher risk of recurrence, based on personal risk factors.
Closely related to consolidation therapy is maintenance therapy, which tries to prevent the recurrence of leukemia. This approach is used only in certain forms of leukemia, such as acute lymphoblastic (or lymphocytic) leukemia. This form of therapy is done over a longer period of time, usually two to three years, after consolidation therapy. It involves fewer drugs and lower dosages, so you are much less likely to experience side effects. The specific drug-treatment options will vary from person to person and will depend on your specific type of leukemia.
Many people who are successfully treated for leukemia go on to live long, healthy, and otherwise normal lives. However, some side effects from chemotherapy and radiation can affect you years down the road. With regular checkups with your oncologist, however, most of these effects can be detected and managed effectively.
While cancer treatment destroys cancer cells, it also hurts some healthy cells in your body. This might lead to a different form of leukemia down the road. Injury to immune-system cells (B cells and T cells) in your lymph nodes can also result in lymphoma. Damage to skin cells can increase your risk of certain skin cancers. Heart problems and digestion issues can also result from damage to cells in those organs as well.
Regular checkups may involve occasional blood tests (e.g., blood cell counts) and imaging (e.g., X-rays or CT scans). These can screen for late side effects. Regular screening can also give you peace of mind if you are worried about your cancer recurring. Approximately 40 percent to 70 percent of leukemia survivors report fearing their cancer will return.
In 2006, the Institute of Medicine (now the National Academy of Medicine) recommended that all leukemia survivors make a survivorship care plan. This has information on how to monitor yourself occasionally for certain symptoms and will remind you of when you need to follow up with different kinds of doctors who treat cancer.
Every case of leukemia is different, so these care plans are individualized to a person’s specific needs and situation. The American Cancer Society has aggregated online tools for creating a survivorship plan.
During your cancer treatment, you may have received a great amount of support from family, friends, and other caregivers in your life. The roles and responsibilities within this support system may need to be readjusted after successful treatment as you begin to re-enter many parts of your life. The American Cancer Society offers tips to help you with these readjustments.
Counseling has been shown to improve the quality of life of people recovering from cancer. This involves working with specialized mental-health professionals in a setting where you are comfortable talking about your struggles openly and honestly without fear.
Joining support groups can also help. These are groups of other people with cancer as well as survivors who come together to share their experiences. Talking with others can help give you peace of mind and a positive outlook for the future. Getting “back to normal” is a gradual process that requires a great deal of patience and time. But by working with these resources, this process can be more seamless than it otherwise would.
MyLeukemiaTeam is the social network for people with leukemia and their loved ones. On MyLeukemiaTeam, more than 7,900 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with leukemia.
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