Cancer as a chronic disease

As treatments for cancer improve, more people are living longer with cancer. Many cancers can now be controlled or managed for long periods of time. This means that some types of cancer are now thought of as chronic diseases. Examples of other chronic diseases are asthma and diabetes.

Some cancers, like chronic lymphocytic leukemia and indolent non-Hodgkin lymphoma, are slow-growing, chronic cancers. Treatment isn’t started until you have symptoms of the disease.

Other cancers, like breast or prostate cancers, can be controlled even if they have come back after treatment (recurred) or have spread to other parts of the body (metastasized).

Your healthcare team may tell you that your cancer is controlled, or stable, if tests show that it hasn’t changed for some time. While most chronic cancers can’t be cured, they can be controlled for a long time, even years. Some chronic cancers can go into remission during treatment.

When chronic cancer starts to grow, spread or cause more symptoms, it is called progression. Treatment is started (if you haven’t had any) or changed. Your healthcare team will talk to you about treatment options that will work best for you.

Living with chronic cancer

One of the hardest things about living with chronic cancer is knowing that your healthcare team can’t predict how long the cancer will stay stable or in remission.

You may feel anxious or worried living with this uncertainty. You may feel that you can’t make plans for the future because you don’t know if or when the cancer may come back. It helps to accept the fact that you may not have control over some things with your cancer, but you don’t have to let it control your life. With time, you’ll find ways to cope with chronic cancer that work best for you. There are different ways that you can try to help yourself while living with a chronic cancer.

  • Talk about your feelings with a counsellor, friend or family member. You may want to go to a support group to learn how others are coping as well. This can help you deal with the emotions and then let them go so you have more energy to focus on moving forward.
  • Learn more about what you can do to stay healthy and what symptoms you need to watch for.
  • Be as active as you can. It can help reduce stress and anxiety. Talk to your healthcare team about what type of activity is best for you.
  • If you’re on treatment, take your medicines properly. Make sure you go for your regular medical appointments.
  • Try to live your life in the present moment rather than focusing on the uncertain future.
  • Decide which relationships are most important to you, and focus your energy and time on them. Let go of relationships that cause stress in your life.
  • Take time to do things that you really want to do, especially things that you haven’t done for a while. It’s OK to have fun and enjoy life as fully as you can.

Expert review and references

Medical disclaimer

The information that the Canadian Cancer Society provides does not replace your relationship with your doctor. The information is for your general use, so be sure to talk to a qualified healthcare professional before making medical decisions or if you have questions about your health.

We do our best to make sure that the information we provide is accurate and reliable but cannot guarantee that it is error-free or complete.

The Canadian Cancer Society is not responsible for the quality of the information or services provided by other organizations and mentioned on, nor do we endorse any service, product, treatment or therapy.

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