June is cancer survivor month. You probably would not know it unless you were touched by cancer either as a patient, survivor, or caregiver. And June 5th – today – marks National Cancer Survivors Day 2022.
Since I am officially in remission since May 2016, this year marks my 6-year survival. There is plenty of reasons to celebrate! I am alive, even though I had very slim chances to reach that crucial 5-year mark. I am healthy and fit, even though my body has been drastically changed on the inside and a bit on the outside. I am here six years after the last known cancer cell was removed from me. I am a survivor!
But, is it really all that easy? Can I call myself a survivor? Or am I pushing my luck? Am I cancer-free, in remission, or NED (no evidence of disease) until… I am too scared to even say it.
When I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in November 2014, I had no idea what it really meant and what to expect the next day, month, or year. And, of course, I expected the very worst.
Even though at initial diagnosis, my staging (2B) came with the average survival rate of 60%, to me it seemed like a death sentence. It was almost 50/50. Those are pretty scary odds if you ask me.
Then came the initial surgery, radiation, chemo, and complementary modalities under the guidance of my integrative doctor. We did everything that allopathic and naturopathic medicine had to offer.
For a year and a half, it seemed to have worked. I finished the treatments, went back to work, and the usual day-to-day activities started returning.
Then, a reoccurrence. Luckily, a very small met in the lung, and easily operable. I was lucky. Not all patients get that chance to remove whatever is growing inside.
More chemo, more side effects.
Emotions? Feelings? I went through all of them. From the initial shock and despair, through the fighting spirit and hope, to denial, exasperation, and depression.
Going through cancer is like no other experience that I have known. You feel helpless and yet you want to do everything in your power to fight that beast.
Within minutes your mood can shift from life-embracing, all-encompassing, loving hope to utter despair, darkness, and melancholia.
Your time perception changes. One hour of chemo seems like an eternity. One hour without pain like a mere second.
You look at your children and don’t know what to do with all the love you have for them. You know that all the affection that you would be showering them with for years might have to be given to them in a much shorter span. You hug them as tight as you can and you run away from them to hide the tears.
It is normal for a person with cancer or a cancer survivor to have feelings of anxiety, such as worry, fear, and dread. But if these feelings do not go away over time, continue to get worse, or affect daily life, they could be a sign of PTSD.Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Cancer
The first two years since the recurrence were very hard both physically and emotionally.
Gradually though, with every new scan coming back clear, the dark clouds were parting and the rays of hope would become brighter and brighter.
By the time, I reached three years after the recurrence, my doctor started speaking of the possibility of a cure. An amazing idea, considering that the average 5-year survival for metastatic colorectal cancer hovers around 10%.
Life slowly seemed to be returning to normal. My body regained its normal functions. My hair grew back. I went back to a regular exercise routine and kept vigilant about what I was eating and putting on my body. Detoxing my diet and the immediate environment became of utmost priority.
Thinking about the big C used to be almost constant in the first few years. My life was scheduled around treatments, scans, and doctor visits. My days were scheduled around supplement taking, prescribed meditation, and exercise, all meant to lower the chances of yet another reoccurrence.
With time, the thought of the disease moves to the back of the mind. It is still there, and it resurfaces on occasion. Making long-term plans is still a bit tricky. What if my next scan shows something? How can I plan a trip a few months ahead? What if I need treatment?
Things that Changed
Cancer changes so many things for the survivor. Coming out, you really are not the same person that went in.
Of course, physically, your body might have changed. My body looks pretty much the same on the outside aside from a few post-surgery scars.
But on the inside, it is missing a good portion of the colon, and due to internal scar tissue, it reminds me of itself with unnerving regularity.
Every few months, I get a bowel blockage which requires a hospital visit. No matter how unpleasant it is – the excruciating pain, the nasogastric tube insertion, two or three days of hospital stay – I am filled with gratitude. I am thinking to myself: better this than not being here. If this is the price I have to pay for getting this chance to survive this cancer, I’ll take it.
But even more important changes are those of attitude and the outlook on life in general.
I would never use the phrase, “cancer was the best thing that happened to me.” It might be true for some people, but for me personally, I think of it as a bit of a hyperbole gone way too far.
And yet, there is some good that came out of this now almost eight-year-long journey.
What I’ve Learned
I learned to appreciate the now so much more than before.
Before getting sick, life was all about the day-to-day business. Rushing, stressing, getting things done. No time for taking a breath and actually seizing the day.
Now, I try to be really present in the moment on every occasion. Enjoying the time in the company of my loved ones. Taking the time for conversation. Preparing meals and eating together with friends and family. Discovering new places to visit. Savoring every minute that passes by.
Cancer survivors know how precious time is. Carpe Diem is the motto for all of us for sure.
I learned to (at least) try to not sweat the small stuff.
Life is messy, there will be chaos here and then, and some things won’t go exactly the way I want. I learned to be ok with that. So what if the house is messy for a while? We’ll clean it, if not today then tomorrow. Is it worth having a fight over with the spouse or children? It is not.
Cancer taught me to recognize what really matters. It is not the small stuff. It is the big picture. The fact that I have a great husband and amazing kids. This is what counts.
I learned to say no.
It used to be very difficult for me not to agree to everything I was asked to do, at work and at home. I wanted to please, I wanted to impress, even at the cost of more important things like relaxation and peace of mind.
Ever since cancer, I learned to prioritize my health, and what comes with it – my precious time. If whatever I am asked to do conflicts with my plan for the day, I won’t agree to it. Of course, I don’t mind doing favors and helping where help is needed, but it has to be at the right time and place.
I won’t drive an hour and back to a 20-minute meeting unless it is truly crucial to my job and my performance. I won’t socialize just to please the other person. My time is so much more valuable to me now. I want to spend it well and in the company, I really want to be with.
I learned to not be ashamed of prioritizing my health and wellbeing.
As a working mom, I used to feel guilty for taking my time for a nap or self-care time, like a bath or face mask, or just relaxing on the hammock in my backyard. How can I be doing all this when there is dinner to prep, kids’ homework to supervise, their backpacks to prepare, tidying up and washing and all the other things to do, all after getting back from work?
Not anymore. It’s been scientifically proven that stress is a major contributing factor to cancer, so de-stressing is a major part of my care for myself. I know now that taking care of my body and mind is in the long run taking care of my family as well. A healthy and happy mom makes for a happy family.
How to Celebrate National Cancer Survivors Day 2022?
In 2020, 19.3 million new cancer cases and approximately 10 million cancer deaths occurred worldwideScience Direct
To me, celebrating National Cancer Survivors Day means two things. For survivors themselves, it amounts to telling their stories of survival. And for those who come in contact with these survivors, it means attentively listening to their stories.
Why should we, the survivors, keep telling our stories?
Because, if nothing else, they give those recently diagnosed a sense of hope in the otherwise dreadful time of uncertainty, fear, and often depression.
When I was first diagnosed at age 46, I felt like a huge abyss opened in front of me. Searching online for information about my disease only made things worse. The statistics, the survival rate percentages, the description of treatments, and the resulting side effects were shocking and debilitating.
Even once I joined colon cancer patient and survivor groups on Facebook, most of the posts there were about the bad, rarely about the good outcomes. Befriending other patients and then seeing posts about their passing was excruciating. So many, so many have perished.
Despite great advances in medicine, cancer seems to be one of those elusive diseases that keeps rearing its ugly head whenever we might think that a cure is on the horizon. Especially when it comes to colorectal cancer, the so-called early onset of the disease is on the rise.
This is why it is so important to keep the stories of survival alive and available to those newly diagnosed. No one is a statistic. No one is a number or a percentage. One person’s outcome is always different than another person’s outcome. Everyone can potentially beat the odds.
I remember a book on tape that I listened to religiously for a while, it was called “Radical Remission” and included stories of survivors whose cancers were cured seemingly against all odds.
The term spontaneous remission or spontaneous regression (SR) of cancer translates into the recovery of a patient from cancer in the absence of a disease-specific treatment or in the presence of inadequate therapy.The spontaneous remission of cancer: Current insights and therapeutic significance
I would play and replay these amazing stories of hope and something clicked in my mind and I started manifesting the belief that I can be one of these lucky ones who beat the odds. I knew it would require work and commitment. In fact, all these stories had many commonalities such as dietary changes, detoxification, de-stressing, self-care modalities, strong belief system, and the like. I tried to implement as much as I could into my recovery as well.
Being a Survivor
What does it mean to be a cancer survivor? In one way, you’re a survivor from the moment you are diagnosed. This initial “you have cancer” pronouncement inflicts trauma on the person from the get-go. Surviving this trauma makes you a survivor in an instant. And it comes with PTSD, symptoms no doubt about it.
But being a survivor of cancer also means getting another chance to make things right, to try something different, to embrace life in ways possibly unknown to the person before.
For a cancer survivor, the life before is always different than the life after. It doesn’t necessarily better or more meaningful, it might be that of course, but it does not have to be, and probably is not for all. One thing is for sure, it is a different life in one way or another.
This National Cancer Survivor Day, let’s embrace everything this second chance at life has to offer.
Here is to life, here is to love, here is to survival!