Tuesday, June 9, 2009

National Cancer Survivors' Day

Sunday was National Cancer Survivors' Day, which is held on the first Sunday in June. The first thought I have about this is how wonderful it is that there are so many people now considered "cancer survivors" (over 10 million). The second thought is that I still don't consider myself a "survivor" just yet, 23 months post-diagnosis. I think that passing the 5-year mark would meet my personal definition of the term. I won't be celebrating just yet, but I certainly hope to someday...

Can you recall when hearing that someone had "cancer", that you immediately thought they were going to die? I do; and I also remember as a child hearing people whisper the word in hushed tones, or calling it 'the big C". They were afraid to say it out loud, as if it was something shameful or secret.

The very word held immeasurable power over us. It no longer does, due to the advances in research and treatment for almost all types of cancer. Also, brave people in the public eye were not afraid to let the world know that they had cancer, so others could follow their example and seek treatment. Lifting the veil on cancer demystifies it, and diminishes its power to terrify us and paralyze us into inaction.

I will never forget my first experience with cancer. A childhood friend, several years older than me, died of leukemia when he was eleven years old. He had always watched out for me when I was around, helped me ride my bike, find my lost toys, and I'll never forget how he rescued me when I fell face-first into a rosebush. I really looked up to him; he was like my "big brother". It was so hard to understand why he got sick, and when he died, I couldn't imagine how this could happen. It was so unfair. Now, the 5-year survival rate for his type of leukemia is 80%. I sadly wish that Paul had been a survivor, but I'm happy that the disease no longer claims as many children as it did decades ago.

I think that the entire survivorship movement is valuable; some kind of framework is needed to support people with cancer facing other physical, emotional, financial, workplace, and societal issues. It's not just enough to get the person through treatment; each individual, including myself, will have additional challenges that they will have to face on an ongoing basis.

Some people are consumed with the fear that their cancer will return, which effectively prevents them from enjoying whatever days they indeed do have remaining; others experience side effects from the daily medications needed to prevent their cancer from recurring; patients who have finished their treatment experience now feel confused and alone as they face their future; families are financially and emotionally strained by the treatment and caregiving experience. Most cancer patients now will have to plan for their "post-cancer" life, which is a positive development in our continuing campaign against the disease.

May we not all just survive, but learn to thrive...

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