Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a survivorship dinner. I was astounded by the number of cancer survivors at the function. The emcee announced there were 402 survivors present. It was hard to believe there were that many survivors in and around our city.
Each survivor received a circular sticker as we entered the building. We were to place it on our chests after writing the number of years we’d survived in bold black marker. As I moved through the crowd, I did my best to see the stickers and make note of how long each person had survived. There were various numbers but most of them were below 10 years of survival.
As luck would have it, I was placed at a table with an elderly man. Glancing at his sticker, I thought he’d made a mistake as he’d written his number. When I asked him about it, he confirmed he was a 48-year survivor.
I enjoyed talking with him and as he shared his story, I realized he hadn’t taken part in conventional cancer treatment. This man was in his 80s. He told me when he was first diagnosed with cancer, radiation and chemotherapy treatments were not available. My shock was evident to him, I’m sure, as I leaned in and listened to him tell me about his experience.
Back then, he explained, he’d had his thyroid gland removed and after he’d healed, he was given radioactive iodine injections. To receive each injection, he’d been taken to a lead-walled room in the hospital and had been told to stay away from people for a specific period of time after he got home. He said the injections made him very sick and it had been a difficult time in his life but he stressed his thanks at being alive. His story was interesting and as I listened, I was encouraged.
Every day, month or year past diagnosis is cause for celebration. Many cancer survivors choose to celebrate certain milestones along their journey. Some celebrate annually while others choose to focus on dates that mark their own specific accomplishments. Either way, celebrating life is a necessary part of survivorship.
Upon initial diagnosis, doctors watch their patients carefully. During active treatment, the patient understands that they are under the watchful eye of their medical team. This offers a level of confidence and security. But what happens when periodic appointments stretch further and further apart? Is it normal for a patient to become wary and concerned? How does it feel to have the safety net snatched away?
During the first years after diagnosis, constant testing and treatment are usually conducted. As time passes, visits to the doctor become less frequent and patients may begin to feel disconnected. For some, it might feel like they’re on the edge of a cliff about to be pushed off. These feelings are normal. When a diagnosis is meted out, it’s comforting to know someone will be there with you to hold your hand as you began your journey. As the five year mark approaches, it may seem as if the journey is yours and yours alone. To some degree, this will be true.
The elderly man and I continued talking as the program began. I shared my fears about the future with him. He assured me the best way to deal with fears was to write them down and analyze them. He said, as I listed each one, I could talk about them with my husband or family members and verbalize my feelings. As we talked, he asked what my main fears were. I was embarrassed to share my innermost feelings with a complete stranger but felt he would understand since he, too, was a cancer survivor.
Some of my fears included:
- The feeling that I might face a cancer recurrence in the very near future
- That I might not do enough to prevent a recurrence
- That I might suffer much more the second time around
- That I might die soon
He took the time to listen and did not make me feel my fears were unreasonable. He shared he’d also felt some of the same fears. After speaking with him, I felt like it was time to regroup.
While my breast cancer experience has been almost four years ago, it is still very fresh in my mind. I think I’ve done well to gain closure on that part of my life and have done my best to move past the period of grieving.
It feels odd not seeing the oncologist often. My appointments have been stretched to every six months, and while that might not seem like a long time for some, it seems like an eternity to me.
Each time I enter the hospital now, I’m apprehensive. Old memories flood back and sometimes overwhelm me.
At each visit, I know blood markers will be measured. If there is any elevation, this could signal a recurrence. While I’m sure the doctors are watching me closely, sometimes I feel like I have one foot on the edge of a great precipice.
My hope is to one day be like the 48 year survivor. He’d found a way to move past his cancer and just be busy about living his life. I’m slowly getting there, but I haven’t pushed cancer completely out of my life yet. That’s one fear I still have to conquer.
The gentleman gave me a good piece of advice. He said on my next visit to the doctor I should take someone with me. He explained that our minds have an incredible power to associate memories with events and sometimes, we may not have completely eradicated painful cancer memories. Often, he said, something might trigger a rush of emotions and it would be helpful to have someone with me to offer reassurance and comfort.
What a wise man! I don’t think it was coincidence that we were placed at the same table. I needed to hear his story and receive his advice.
What a gift to be able to share helpful advice! I hope I’ll be able to do the same for someone else in the future.
Cancer is scary at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of treatment. Learning to be brave and face each challenge as it comes takes some doing but as the elderly survivor advised, having someone with me might make it a little easier. Now I just have to decide who that person will be.