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Living with Cancer as a Chronic Illness

Most people think of cancer as a disease that’s either curable or terminal. But there’s also a middle ground: chronic cancer. And it can sometimes be emotionally difficult to deal with.

Chronic cancers are those that can be watched and closely treated—but that may never go away completely, similar to heart disease or diabetes. Patients can live with chronic cancer for months or even years. It’s especially common for those with ovarian cancer, chronic leukemias, some lymphomas, metastatic breast cancer, and prostate cancer.

Because the cancer is still there, living with the disease can often leave patients with a lingering sense of unease.

“It’s normal to feel anxious when your oncologist tells you that you can live with this, but we’re not going to be able to cure you,” said Paula H. Finestone, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center.

You don’t have to let those fears dominate your life, however. Here’s some practical advice for coping with chronic cancer and the uncertainties that often come with it.  

Get the facts from your doctor. Being informed can give you a greater sense of control, Finestone said. Talk with your care team to get a sense of what day-to-day life will look like for you, including how much time you’ll need to devote to treatment and what kinds of symptoms you might experience.

Tune into your body. You might feel energetic one day and lousy the next. In both cases, “do the things that will help you feel as good as possible in your body,” Finestone suggested. Take a walk in the park or go to a modified yoga class when you’re feeling up for it. On days when you’re feeling wiped, give yourself permission to just take a nap instead.   

Talk about your fears. They’re completely normal—but they can eat away at you. Sharing your emotions with a loved one or a counselor can help you process what you’re feeling. You might even find that opening up makes you a little less afraid.  

Focus on the present. Dwelling on what the future might bring can suck up energy that you could be using to make the most of your time today.

“You have to come back to today, because life is happening right now,” Finestone said. “And the things that are happening right now might be very enjoyable things.”

Don’t get bogged down by statistics. Your oncologist may be able to describe the typical course of your cancer or even give you an estimated lifespan. Use this information to get a sense of the big picture, but don’t get too stuck on it.

“These estimates are based on group data,” Finestone said. “You as a patient are your own person with your own circumstances and your own cancer experience.”

Keep in mind - no one can know for certain what the future holds. But treatment advancements are happening every day. Many cancers that are manageable now may be curable down the road. And yours could be one of them.