June is National Cancer Survivor Month, and VA is celebrating Veteran cancer survivors and their journeys.
“Cancer survivorship starts at the point of diagnosis and then onward,” said Leah Zullig, PhD, MPH, associate professor in Population Health Sciences at Duke University, and investigator with the Center of Innovation to Accelerate Discovery and Practice Transformation (ADAPT) at Durham Veterans Affairs Health Care System. “There’s a broad range of experiences, from folks who have moved on from their cancer treatment to those who are really struggling with cancer and its treatment, to those who are engaged in palliative care, or specialized care for people with serious illnesses like cancer.”
Phases of survivorship
Every year, 50,000 Veterans start their cancer survivor journey when they are diagnosed. This journey includes three phases, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology: acute, extended and permanent survivorship.
- Acute Survivorship begins at diagnosis and lasts until the end of treatment. During this phase, treating the cancer is the focus.
- Extended Survivorship starts when treatment ends, and the focus shifts to the effects of cancer and treatment on the individual. This phase lasts several months.
- Permanent Survivorship begins when the cancer treatment ended. The chance the cancer could come back is less at this point. The focus is the long-term effects of cancer and treatment.
Surviving cancer twice
U.S. Navy Veteran Charles “Chuck” Miller has walked this journey twice, having survived both pancreatic and bladder cancer. Miller first noticed blood in his urine in 2012, but his cancer wasn’t discovered until 2017 when he visited the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston, TX, and they did further testing. During the testing for the blood in the urine, Miller’s doctors found he had pancreatic and bladder cancer.
“First there was chemo for the pancreatic cancer and then a surgery to remove a third of my pancreas,” said Miller. “After the surgery, I had four more months of chemo, some time to rest, and then started my treatments for the bladder cancer.”
After receiving Bacillus Calmette-Geurin (BCG) therapy, a type of immunotherapy to treat bladder cancer, Miller underwent surgery for an ileal conduit urinary diversion. In this surgery, a segment of the intestine redirects urine through an opening in the abdominal wall into a collecting bag. After three years of intense treatment, he has been cancer free since his surgery in August 2020.
“I won’t let this take me out,” Miller said. “I have things to do.”
Tips for cancer survivorship
Veterans receiving cancer treatment should talk to their cancer doctor about a survivorship plan. This resource provides a summary of treatment, a guideline for when follow-up tests are needed, and documents which providers are responsible for different aspects of their care. Veterans should also bring this plan to all routine medical appointments to ensure everyone is on the same page.
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle and building a support network can help cancer survivors on their journey. Some tips include:
- Getting enough sleep
- Eating a nutritious and healthy diet
- Reducing your time sitting
- Taking medication as prescribed
- Talking to your provider about local cancer survivor resources
Why cancer survivors choose VA
Here’s why cancer survivors choose VA for their cancer care:
- Personalized care from expert multi-disciplinary care teams through each step of the process – screening, diagnosing and treating
- State-of-the-art DNA molecular testing technology to guide cancer treatment decisions
- TeleOncology services that provide access to oncologists and specialists across the country, regardless of where the Veteran lives
- Access to innovative clinical research
“Everyone in the oncology and urology department are the best people I’ve ever met,” Miller said. “It takes a special human to do what they were doing. They gave me top care.”
VA’s National Oncology Program walks shoulder to shoulder with Veterans on every step of their cancer journey. To learn more about VA’s best-in-class cancer care, please visit cancer.va.gov, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Courtney Franchio is a program manager with VA’s National Oncology Program.