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Think twice before telling me that there is a "good" type of cancer or that I should "just be lucky my daughter is still alive."
When we hear the word cancer, I don’t know how many of us know that cancer is not a one-cell-fits-all disease. Each cancer has its own characteristics, types and subtypes and as such often has a different prognosis and treatment options.
Some cancers, probably because of signs or symptoms that allow for earlier detection and thus earlier intervention, have better overall survival rates than others. This is why there is so much focus in the cancer treatment community on awareness and the importance of screenings such as PSA tests, mammograms and colonoscopies, which can improve the chances of living after cancer.
However, as a result of statistics and public education campaigns, a misconception exists that it’s possible to have a “good” cancer.
News flash — it’s not.
I don’t know of a single cancer treatment that doesn’t have some kind of life-long side effect. Radiation on one part of your body can cause cancer in another later on. Chemo and hormone therapy can cause heart problems that must constantly be watched for. Neuropathy can show up months and even years after treatment numbing hands to the point that cutting vegetables becomes a potential hazard for losing a finger and leaving the survivors with feet that feel like they are being stabbed by thousands of tiny needles when they try to walk. Surgeries can create scars that restrict movement or cause lymphedema, necessitating special garments to be worn forever so arms and legs don’t swell up with retained fluids.
And don’t even get me started on the mental health aspect of being randomly invaded by a monster that doesn’t care how you have lived your life up to the time that you are diagnosed and will haunt you each time you have another scan, or blood test or you itch or ache or can’t catch your breath.
I never heard anyone react to me sharing with them that my father had a heart attack by telling me it was the “good kind” because he lived to have another one. No one ever looked at me and said my mother had the “good kind” of Alzheimer’s. My father-in-law didn’t have the “good kind” of multiple sclerosis because he wasn’t instantly wheelchair bound nor does my friend have the “good kind” of diabetes because she still has her sight.
Each of these diseases will have people who fall on the continuum at different places and so their experiences will not be the same, but the word “good” can never be a modifier to lessen the significance of what being diagnosed meant to them and to their loved ones.
So why do cancer patients hear this so often?
I believe that what people mean when they say you have the “good” cancer is that they think you have a greater chance at survival because they have read or seen information that suggests that patients with that particular diagnosis seem to have better outcomes. But cancer is an invader and a sneaky one at that, and there are no guarantees that even with the “good” cancers you’ll come through NED (no evidence of disease) on the other side of what can be months or years of punishing treatment.
Even early detection can’t change the result if the cancer finds a way to mutate just a hair’s breadth away from the types of cells that the current treatment option kills.
My daughter’s breast cancer was still localized to her breast and a few lymph nodes and was fully responsive to the treatment plan, which just means we were lucky and the science that currently exists matched her subtype. She’s still here, moving forward with plans for the future.
The reality is, though, that every part of her life is still informed by her diagnosis, and it will be forever. She lives with lymphedema. Her left arm, her dominant side, is weaker and tires easily. Her skin randomly breaks out into rashes from radiation recall dermatitis. Her ovaries will have to come out pretty soon. We all live with the fear of recurrence and must center ourselves as we wait for the results of each appointment to see if the cancer is still gone.
Help me understand how that is good by any definition. And before you tell me “at least she’s alive,”I’d like to point out that while true that’s a low bar to judge by.
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