For people with cancer, completing treatment is a huge milestone. For many, it means that it’s time to resume regular activities and go back to the lives they had before cancer.
But for others, completing treatment can lead to stress and anxiety about a wide range of psychological issues, as well as difficulty coping with the physical aftereffects related to cancer and its treatment. Memorial Sloan-Kettering’s Resources for Life After Cancer (RLAC) program was created to support cancer survivors in dealing with these difficulties.
“When patients are undergoing cancer treatment, they’re really focused on managing the issues surrounding that treatment,” says Penny Damaskos, PhD, Clinical Supervisor and Program Coordinator for RLAC. “Once they finish, a lot of other issues come up. Who am I after my cancer diagnosis, and who do I want to be? What if my cancer comes back?”
“Even wonderful events like birthdays can trigger anxiety because patients believe when they get older, they’re getting closer to a cancer recurrence,” Dr. Damaskos adds.
Addressing an Important Need
Resources for Life After Cancer, which was originally called the Post-Treatment Resources Program, was established in 1988 because Memorial Sloan-Kettering psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers saw a need to address the anxiety and other issues that patients cope with after their treatment is finished. The program is now a key component of Memorial Sloan-Kettering’s Survivorship Initiative.
“For many years, we didn’t realize that finishing treatment and being told they didn’t need to come back for several months struck terror in many patients,” Dr. Damaskos says. “These are people who have had every nook and cranny examined for months and months, sometimes weekly or even more often, and now they are told they can go on their own and everything is fine.”
A Range of Programs and Services
An important part of RLAC’s activities are educational programs that address the practical, physical, and psychological issues surrounding cancer survivorship.
“Practical issues include things like dating and finding a job or housing after being treated for cancer,” Dr. Damaskos explains. “Physical issues may include topics like sleeping, exercise, nutrition, and sexual dysfunction. Psychological issues include topics such as coping with body image and finding deeper meaning in receiving a cancer diagnosis. We try to balance all of these so that we offer something for everyone.”
In addition to educational programs, RLAC hosts regular support groups for particular populations, such as young adults, men, women, and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. There are also support groups for survivors of specific cancers, including bladder, esophageal, colorectal, and brain.
These support groups, like the educational programs, are open to all cancer survivors, whether they were treated at Memorial Sloan-Kettering or another center.
“We try to create many points of entry for people to participate. Many people start by coming to larger, informational groups, but after that they may be more likely to feel comfortable attending a support group,” Dr. Damaskos says.
For Memorial Sloan-Kettering patients and their family members, RLAC also offers free individual counseling for a limited time after treatment. “We are only able to offer this to our own patients, because of issues that may come up requiring access to the patient’s medical records,” Dr. Damaskos explains.
Most RLAC events are held at Memorial Sloan-Kettering’s main campus in New York City, but some groups meet at the regional sites. RLAC also coordinates topics with Memorial Sloan-Kettering’s Virtual Groups program, which offers live seminars and support groups conducted online and over the phone.
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