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A cancer diagnosis can be a challenging road for many patients to navigate. They spend time learning about their disease, undergoing treatments and dealing with side effects, all the while looking forward to the day they are free of disease. But the path after treatment ends is not always straightforward or free of obstacles.

Deborah Mayer, PhD, ANP-BC, AOCN, FAAN, director of cancer survivorship for UNC Lineberger and the Frances Hill Fox Distinguished Professor in the UNC School of Nursing.
Deborah Mayer, PhD, ANP-BC, AOCN, FAAN, is the director of cancer survivorship for UNC Lineberger and the Frances Hill Fox Distinguished Professor in the UNC School of Nursing.

Helping patients through this phase of their cancer journey is Deborah Mayer, PhD, ANP-BC, AOCN, FAAN, the director of cancer survivorship for UNC Lineberger, the Frances Hill Fox Distinguished Professor in the UNC School of Nursing and the interim director of the National Cancer Institute’s Office of Cancer Survivorship.

Helping patients beyond treatment

Mayer has been an oncology nurse since 1975. During her career, she has seen scientific discoveries change the landscape of cancer, but she has been especially interested in what happens to patients when they finish treatment.

“I started paying attention to people when they go home and what they’re dealing with; we see the ‘snapshot’ while they live the ‘video’,” she said. “We were treatment focused, but we needed to focus on what happens after treatment. It’s not an either-or.”

Flash forward, and now Mayer has a clearer picture of what survivorship looks like for patients, their caregivers and their families. People continue their day to day lives, and even though they may be disease-free, there can be remnants of their cancer or its treatment that affect them.

Chris Draft and Deborah Mayer
Chris Draft with Deborah Mayer at the Friday Center. Draft played for 12 seasons in the NFL, including with the Carolina Panthers. He lost his wife, Lakeasha Rutledge Draft, to lung cancer in 2011. Together, they created Team Draft, an initiative of the Chris Draft Family Foundation to raise awareness about the disease and to support early detection, treatment, research and survivorship.

Mayer said there are often residual effects from chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, as well as other conditions that can occur, simply because the patient had cancer. For some survivors, a new cancer may appear, as 20 percent of new cancers are found in people who previously had cancer.

“We have to get everyone to focus on the new normal,” she said. “Not what it was like before, but what it looks like after they’ve been diagnosed and treated because their lives have changed.”

For many survivors, fatigue tops the list of complaints. But residual effects of chemotherapy, like neuropathy in the hands and feet, may take time to fade away or even never fully go away.

Cancer survivor workshop

Focusing on these issues and survivors as a whole is the idea behind the Cancer Transitions wellness program Mayer holds every other month, with an upcoming session Saturday, May 2 at the SECU Family House in Chapel Hill.

The free workshops are open to adult cancer survivors and their caregivers, and experts discuss topics like nutritional wellness, physical activity and exercise, coping with stress, and medical management after treatment. Free parking and healthy snacks are provided.

“We focus not just on recovery but what they need to be asking their providers and how to follow up about survivorship care plans,” Mayer said.

Developing good habits

Mayer said a lot of the cancer journey is out of patients’ control, so an important part of survivorship is focusing on what they can manage, like eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of exercise and sleep. “If they have good health behaviors after diagnosis, it may help them feel better and may even help keep cancer from coming back,” she said.

One survivor said they enjoyed the presentation on exercise in particular. “I thought the program was well done,” they wrote in a survey. “DJ [from Get Real and Heel] did a great job with not only talking about programs available, but the exercises that he presented were simple to follow and remember.”

Meeting other survivors

People using therabands during a Cancer Transitions workshopMost importantly for survivors and their caregivers is meeting other people who know firsthand what they’re going through. Mayer said it offers patients a chance to share experiences in an informal setting. “We see that they’re comfortable with people who’ve had similar experiences,” she said. “They can talk about those issues they may be reluctant to talk about with their providers, if they’re in a busy clinic or feel like the issues they’re having aren’t as serious as active cancer.”

Mayer said one group that’s often overlooked is the caregivers, but the wellness program offers an opportunity for them to talk about their experiences, as well. “It’s very validating for caregivers to hear from other caregivers, to hear what it’s been like and the concerns they have about it,” she said. A recent program participant agreed, saying that the topics covered were relevant and useful.

“The most valuable piece for me is the contact information for support in the future,” the participant wrote in a survey. “I will definitely recommend the program and share its resources with others.”

Attend a Cancer Transitions workshop

The Cancer Transitions workshops in Chapel Hill, NC, are held every other month. View the upcoming dates and register to participate in a session.

Not in Chapel Hill? Find a Cancer Transitions workshop near you in North Carolina.

Additionally, UNC Lineberger holds an annual cancer survivorship day conference. Join us Saturday, May 16th at the Friday Center in Chapel Hill, NC, for the 2020 Cancer Survivors Day Conference.

Want to learn more about cancer survivorship? Find resources and services available through our Cancer Survivorship Program.