After your treatment is over, it is very important to keep all follow-up appointments. Follow-up is needed to check for cancer recurrence or spread, as well as possible side effects of certain treatments. Your follow-up should include regular skin and lymph node exams by yourself and by your doctor. How often you need follow-up visits depends on the stage of your melanoma when you were diagnosed.
For thin melanomas, exams every 3 to 12 months are typical. For thick melanomas, you'll probably need to have an exam every 3 to 6 months. Some doctors also recommend chest x-rays (to look to see if the cancer has spread to the lung) and certain blood tests (to detect spread to the liver or bone) every 3 to 12 months. Other tests, such as CT scans, may be considered as well -- especially for people who had more advanced stage disease.
It is also important for melanoma skin cancer survivors to do regular self-exams at least once per month. You should see your doctor if you find any new lump or change in your skin. You should also report any new symptoms (for example, pain, cough, fatigue, loss of appetite) that do not go away. Melanoma can come back as many as 10 or (rarely) more years after it was first treated.
Having cancer and dealing with treatment can be emotionally draining, but it can also be a time to look at your life in new ways. Before your diagnosis, did you drink too much alcohol? Eat more than you needed? Smoke? Not exercise very often? Emotionally, maybe you kept your feelings bottled up, or maybe you let stressful situations go on too long. Now is not the time to feel guilty or to blame yourself. However, you can start making changes today that can have positive effects for the rest of your life. Not only will you feel better, but you will also be healthier. What better time than now to take advantage of the motivation you have as a result of going through a life-changing experience like having cancer?
Of course, it goes without saying that all melanoma survivors must make one critical lifestyle change: Stay out of the sun!
Diet and Nutrition
One of the best things you can do after treatment is to put healthy eating habits into place. You will be surprised at the long-term benefits of some simple changes, like increasing the variety of healthy foods you eat. Try to eat 5 or more servings of vegetables and fruits each day. Choose whole grain foods instead of white flour and sugars. Try to limit meats that are high in fat. Cut back on processed meats like hot dogs and bologna. If you are still feeling side effects of treatment, you may find it helpful to eat small portions every 2 to 3 hours until you feel better and can go back to a more normal schedule.
Rest, Fatigue, Work, and Exercise
Fatigue is a very common symptom in people being treated for cancer. This is often not an ordinary type of tiredness but a "bone-weary" exhaustion that doesn't get better with rest. For some, this fatigue lasts a long time after treatment, and it can discourage them from physical activity. However, exercise can actually help you reduce fatigue. Studies have shown that patients who follow an exercise program tailored to their personal needs feel physically and emotionally improved and can cope better.
If you haven't exercised in a few years but can still get around, you may want to think about taking short walks. Long term, we know that exercise plays a role in preventing some cancers. The American Cancer Society, in its guidelines on physical activity for cancer prevention, recommends that adults take part in at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity, above usual activities, on 5 or more days of the week; 45 to 60 minutes of intentional physical activity are preferable. Children and teens are encouraged to try for at least 60 minutes a day of energetic physical activity on at least 5 days a week.
Once your treatment ends, you may find yourself overwhelmed by emotions. This happens to a lot of people. You may have been going through so much during treatment that you could only focus on getting through your treatment. Now is an ideal time to seek out emotional and social support. You need people you can turn to for strength and comfort. Support can come in many forms: family, friends, cancer support groups, church or spiritual groups, online support communities, or individual counselors.
You can start right here at About.com by visiting our Skin Cancer Forums.
You can't change the fact that you have had cancer. What you can change is how you live the rest of your life -- making healthy choices and feeling as well as possible, physically and emotionally.
American Cancer Society. "What Happens After Treatment for Melanoma?" 30 July 2009.