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By Richard Just, MD

The fact that the term “Cancer Survivorship” is now part of our vocabulary is a testimony to advances made in management of these diseases.  Most cancer survivors, however, are not unscathed by the experience.  As I tell my patients, they won’t be entirely as they were before treatment.  How these issues are dealt with varies from person to person.  But, awareness that chronic problems may persist long after treatments end signals that even though we’ve won the battle, the war is not necessarily over.  We may need to address problems in the physical, mental/emotional and/or spiritual spheres.  After all, quality is as important as quantity.

Certainly, health care professionals are well trained to deal with physical issues.  Attempting to address the totality of needs in an organized manner is a recent phenomenon.  Certainly, in thinking about programs that have been successful in supporting people mentally, emotionally and spiritually, 12-Step Programs come to mind.  The Steps are compelling as they are for anyone affected by the disease alcoholism, including the alcoholic (A.A.) and the “caregiver” (Al-Anon).  Substitute “cancer” for “alcoholism.”  The value of The Steps is that they provide a guideline through the process of recovery.  In fact, I prefer the designation “recovery” over “survivorship” as it implies an ongoing process with relapses and remissions along the way.

At first glance, the verbiage doesn’t seem to be appropriate.  But, The Steps suggest four primary ideas:

  • “We Are Powerless Over the Problem of Alcoholism.”  This notion of powerlessness is difficult for healthcare professionals, especially physicians, to accept.  The intention is that we as individuals have no ability to change attitudes and behaviors of others, but we do have control over ourselves.  Think the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference.

In fact, this is a very empowering concept that releases each of us from worrying about issues that don’t concern us and address our energies to our own lives.

  • “We Can Turn Our Lives Over to a Power Greater than Ourselves.”  Many find the idea of a Higher Power difficult to embrace, while others already believe in a Power greater than themselves, but feel that “God has deserted” them.  Both viewpoints hinder recovery as they tend to foster a victim mentality.  Personally, I dislike the designation “cancer victim” for this reason.

The slogan:  “Let Go and Let God” can also be very liberating, recognizing that The Higher Power is in charge of our lives and we are not victims.  The 11th Step provides details:

Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

  • “We Need to Change Both Our Attitude and Our Actions.”  Both the cancer and its treatments can  result in distorted thinking.  Some are left with severe fatigue and pain; others with long-lasting memory deficits called chemobrain.  Anxiety and depression are not uncommon.  The possibility of recurrence is always present.  Some become angry and blame their situation on others.  Obviously, these behaviors can be self-destructive and ruin relationships.  In these difficult situations, a useful tool in 12-Step programs is sponsorship.  Having someone who has lived through similar circumstances and recovered always there for support and guidance is crucial for recovery.
  • “We Keep the Gifts We’ve Received by Sharing Them with Others.”  Probably the most important concept.  Several studies have shown that participation in cancer support groups improves outcomes.  But many patients still are reticent to join.  Some prefer the privacy of one-on-one sessions with a therapist.  On the other hand, they lose the personal experiences of people who have experienced what they’re experiencing.  One compromise is to have a mentor or sponsor who has personal knowledge of the treatment guide the patient and family through the process.

For this reason, 12-Step programs rigidly subscribe to anonymity to encourage participation in meetings and sharing experiences with others.  The most important item in the success of these programs has not been identified, but several reports have suggested sharing at meetings as the major one.

I’m thrilled that we’re talking about Cancer Survivorship these days.  The fact that more people are living longer is very gratifying.  Therefore, formally addressing quality of life issues is the logical next step.  Incorporating 12-Step program concepts into Cancer Survivorship Programs, proven successful in other diseases, merits serious consideration.