Surviving Cancer: With Celebration Comes Challenges

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Many people think “surviving” cancer is simply a matter of getting through sometimes grueling months of treatment and finally being pronounced “cured” or “free of disease.”  Actually, a person is considered a cancer “survivor” from the time of diagnosis through the rest of his or her life. Promoted by the advocacy community, this definition is embraced by the National Cancer Institute and many other organizations. While hearing the words, “You are now cancer-free,” can set off celebratory fireworks in one’s soul, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the effects of fighting cancer are over. Survivors may face a lifetime struggle with physical and emotional scars as well as social and economic challenges that exact a heavy a toll on the human body and spirit.

Cancer survivors find themselves facing many questions that directly affect their daily living: How do I relate to family and friends? Will I still be able to perform my job in the same way? What about the psychological and emotional scars of having dealt with a serious illness? How do I deal with my worries about recurrence? What about the feelings and anxieties of my spouse or significant other? For the cancer survivor these issues can loom large many years after finishing treatment.

Some of these issues persist for a lifetime, which is why the National Cancer Institute created an Office of Cancer Survivorship to fund and track research and report on emerging issues in this area. The constituency is huge and varied. Today there are more than 12 million cancer survivors in the United States, representing close to four percent of the population.  About 14 percent of those survivors were diagnosed with cancer more than 20 years ago. In addition, six of every ten cancer survivors are age 65 and older. Because of advances made through research, the odds of surviving cancer have greatly increased and at least two-thirds of adults diagnosed with cancer today will be alive in five years. Many people live with cancer as a chronic disease for years.

For African Americans and others from communities of color, surviving cancer can take on a different meaning because of cultural norms that are unique to their experience.  For example, in many African American and Hispanic communities, adult children often care for their parents and other older family members at home, especially when they become ill. In these communities, support for the survivor might involve culturally appropriate family-focused strategies to help these families cope.  These strategies may differ from those that are helpful to patients from other cultures.

For the past 22 years, the first Sunday in June has been observed as National Cancer Survivors Day: a time when those who work on behalf of cancer patients remind their constituents that survivors confront these many issues. However, regardless of the month, it’s always a good time to learn about survivorship and educate ourselves about survivors’ overall well-being.

Almost everyone knows at least one cancer survivor – a family member, a friend, a coworker. You may be a cancer survivor yourself. Whether you are recovering yourself, or are a family member of a cancer survivor, knowledge about recommendations for follow up care can enhance life beyond the diagnosis. Cancer survivorship is as much about the impact on one’s circle of friends and family as it is about the survivor’s own personal mastery over the disease. A person’s entire world “shifts” after cancer, and many people are unaware of that.

Despite the challenges of survivorship, a pronouncement of “cancer free” should usher in a hopeful and celebratory time. Here are some places where you can learn more about cancer survivorship to make cancer survival a positive experience:

The National Cancer Institute is the nation’s cancer research agency. For more information about cancer research and resources, visit www.cancer.gov or call toll-free 1-800-4CANCER.

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