When Is it OK to Refer to our Cancer in the Past Tense?

Published on: 

Do I have cancer? Did I have cancer? I may have an answer.

According to Dr. William Li, M.D., cancer researcher, president and medical director of the Angiogenesis Foundation, every single person absolutely has microscopic cancers growing inside them. He explains that our bodies are made up of more than 50 trillion cells that are continuously dividing to keep us healthy.

And occasionally with all that action going on, one of those cells can malfunction and suddenly a mutation occurs. As a result, we may develop a very small, possibly innocuous microscopic cancer.

Of course the human body is a pretty amazing organism and the good news is that most of these abnormal cells will never become dangerous because our immune systems provide excellent defenses against cancer and other diseases. So technically, I suppose, it’s correct to say that all of us could have tiny, defective cells in our bodies — or cancer — at any time.

But when I talk to people about my breast cancer that was diagnosed nearly three years ago, they will often ask politely “so you have cancer?” And the truth is, I don’t know the correct way to reply. I don’t have any symptoms of cancer that I can detect. I only have that persistent numbness in my left chest, the nagging neuropathy, and the annoyance of a scar that is often uncomfortable.

But that’s not cancer.

How we choose to rid the cancer from our bodies is a highly personal and often confusing choice. Despite my determination to forgo the chemotherapy that was recommended to me by two oncologists, I am confident in my decision and feel that my breast cancer is gone. My own approach and protocol has been to change my diet, exercise frequently, laugh often (I’m a certified Laughter Yoga Teacher) and take some rather large supplements of pure turmeric, a spice that has shown some intriguing results as an anti-inflammatory agent and may possibly discourage tumor growth. The jury is still out on that one.

So in my opinion, based on how I feel, I don’t have cancer. But I did have it. Or perhaps I do, but it’s undetectable and concealed within a galaxy of 50 trillion cells.

It’s puzzling to say the least.

When we have a cold or flu and the symptoms subside after a week we no longer have it. So why doesn’t cancer work that way also? No symptoms, no cancer.

Let’s face it, breast cancer and certainly the male version of it is a cumbersome disease from the very beginning, with all of its stages and grades and variations. And it’s difficult to explain it to other people who don’t have a grasp of the basic concepts of a cancer diagnosis. I’m very comfortable, as are many of us, with the designation “male breast cancer survivor.” This implies to me that I not only have pushed cancer out of my immediate experience, but that I’ve survived its diabolical assault on my life, at least for now.

We have the so called “five-year marker” that statistically indicates we no longer have cancer in our bodies, but statistics are very impersonal and there are obvious exceptions to this measurement. And then there’s the element of “belief.” What do we actually believe about our cancer, and how important is that?

I truly believe that my breast cancer will not return. That does not make it so of course, but it certainly clarifies my answer when I’m asked, “Do you have cancer?”

I think about my breast cancer every day. I write or talk about it every day. In a very real sense, it’s always with me and always will be, but as more weeks and months are added to my survival time its impact is softened and its effects grow murky.

So if you were to ask me if I have cancer today, I would reply with an empathic “no” — with a caveat.

"Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence!"

Thank you Carl Sagan.