When doctors at University of Minnesota Health Cancer Care talk about “treating cancer,” they’re not just referring to chemotherapy, radiation or surgery.
“There’s a lot more to helping patients get healthy than removing the cancerous cells from your body and trying to ensure that the disease doesn’t come back,” said Hematologist/Oncologist Anne Blaes, MD, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota. “Cancer, and the treatment of cancer, often triggers a wide range of physical and mental side effects, and we have to focus on helping patients with those, as well.”
Blaes, director of our Cancer Survivor Program, has dedicated her career to helping patients navigate such difficulties—during treatment, immediately after treatment ends and even years after patients have been discharged. We’ve asked her to introduce us to the support services we offer for current and former patients.
Cancer and its treatment often trigger rapid weight loss, and patients sometimes gain back the pounds just as rapidly after treatment ends. Because proper nourishment is critical to health, our nutrition counselors instruct patients to enjoy food that’s high in vegetable content and low in animal fats and nitrates—and in some cases, we actually help patients prepare meals.
Difficulties with memory or concentration are a common side effect of chemotherapy—so common, in fact, that the term “chemo brain” has been coined to describe the problem. In such cases, Blaes said, there are a range of programs to reduce the symptoms, and help patients re-engage in normal work and leisure activities.
Pain management is a major issue during treatment for some individuals, and sometimes, long after it ends. University of Minnesota Cancer Care teams not only work with patients to manage medications, but help them adopt mental disciplines and lifestyle changes to deal with chronic discomfort.
Maintaining an active lifestyle is an important part of recovery. That isn’t so easy for those who are enduring debilitating chemotherapy, or who weren’t active before their diagnosis. Our providers nudge patients back into physical activity with a supervised exercise program. We monitor heart rate and other vital signs as patients develop an exercise regimen and help patients who have had lymph nodes removed reduce the swelling that sometimes occurs in their arms or legs.
Not surprisingly, critical illness can trigger a psychological crisis, or raise big questions about mortality and life’s ultimate meaning. Our care team works alongside priests, ministers and other spiritual counselors, and offers mindfulness meditation training, which has proven successful in overcoming depression and anxiety.