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Supportive care for leukemia
Supportive care helps people meet the physical, practical, emotional and spiritual challenges of leukemia. It is an important part of cancer care. There are many programs and services available to help meet the needs and improve the quality of life of people living with cancer and their loved ones, especially after treatment has ended.
Recovering from leukemia and adjusting to life after treatment is different for each person. Recovery depends on the type of leukemia, the type of treatments and many other factors. The end of cancer treatment may bring mixed emotions. Even though treatment has ended, there may be other issues to deal with, such as coping with long-term side effects.
If you have been treated for leukemia, you may have concerns about the following.
How a person feels about or sees themselves is called self-esteem. Body image is a person’s perception of their own body. Leukemia and its treatments can affect a person’s self-esteem and body image. Often this is because cancer or cancer treatments may result in body changes, such as:
- hair loss
- skin problems
- changes in body weight
Some of these changes can be temporary. Others will last for a long time and some will become permanent.
Fatigue is a symptom of having a low red blood cell count (called anemia). Red blood cell counts can be low when the bone marrow is affected by leukemia or its treatments. Fatigue can also be a symptom of other problems that people with leukemia may have, including poor nutrition, sleep problems, anxiety or depression.
Once the cause of fatigue is known, your healthcare team can suggest ways to treat it. Treatments may include:
- nutritional supplements if you have poor nutrition
- iron pills or a blood transfusion for anemia
- antidepressants for depression
- sleep medicines to help improve sleep
Infection can develop if you have a low white blood cell count (called neutropenia). White blood cell counts can be low when leukemia or its treatments affect the bone marrow.
Preventing infection is important for people with leukemia. Having good hygiene, protecting your skin and maintaining good general health are some ways to help prevent infection. Your healthcare team may give you medicines to prevent infection if you have a low white blood cell count.
You may be given medicines to treat infections, such as antibiotics, antivirals and antifungals.
Abnormal bleeding can occur when you have a low platelet count (called thrombocytopenia). The platelet count can be low when leukemia or its treatments affect the bone marrow.
Call your healthcare team if you have bleeding problems that get worse or can’t be controlled.
You may be given platelet transfusions if your platelet count is low and you are bleeding or have a lot of bruising.
Find out more about low platelet count.
Emotions may be overwhelming during treatment and once treatment ends. Many people with leukemia feel anxiety and depression.
During treatment, the focus is getting through treatment. Treatment takes a long time and it may be difficult to stay positive. Finances, work and relationships may be a concern.
When treatment is finished, you may have other thoughts and unexpected feelings, including:
- concern that the leukemia will come back
- thinking of the effects of the leukemia on your family, friends and career
- questioning your self-worth and identity
- worrying about changes in your appearance
- adapting to lifestyle changes
- feeling anxious because you have less contact with the healthcare team
People cope with leukemia in different ways, including:
- appropriate physical activities
- good nutrition
- balancing being active with rest
- communicating openly and honestly about your fears and concerns
Treatment for emotional distress may include counselling and medicines.
Questions to ask about supportive care
To make the decisions that are right for you, ask your healthcare team questions about supportive care.
Support from someone who has ‘been there’
The Canadian Cancer Society’s peer support program is a telephone support service that matches cancer patients and their caregivers with specially trained volunteers.