I know these questions may seem odd coming from someone who survived a cancerous tumor. But sometimes I don’t feel like a breast cancer survivor in the same way as others perceive me. Or even in the way I perceive others who are cancer survivors. Let me try to explain by sharing with you some encounters that I have had over the past five years.
My first encounter with being called a “breast cancer survivor” was when my mother told me that her friend told her that I became a survivor as soon as I was diagnosed. That was a nice thing to tell my mother, but I don’t buy it. After all, the cancer was in my body until it was removed. For me, I hadn’t “survived” breast cancer until the tumor was out.
Another encounter was few months after the completion of chemotherapy. I ran into a young woman who was one of my students and the daughter of a dear friend. She knew of my diagnosis, and my hair had just started growing back so I was still in hats. She asked after my health. I was happy to be able to give her a good report. Her response was, “Oh, so you’re in remission.” Remission??? Where did that come from? Other than the tumor in my breast there was no cancer in my body that needed killing. However, there was no reason for me to try to correct her if this is her understanding of cancer. So I just smiled and gave her a hug.
Earlier this week I had an encounter that gave me yet another “survivor” definition. I was at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center for my annual mammogram (no findings other than what they’ve seen before, I’m happy to report). While in the waiting room I was drawn into a conversation by some of the other women who were waiting. One woman was there as moral support for her best friend who was there for a follow-up evaluation. At some point I told moral-support lady that I had had breast cancer and had recently passed my five-year mark. Her response: “Congratulations! You’ve made the five-year mark. You are now a survivor.” Well, yes and no.
There is so much that goes into a diagnosis, treatment plan and outcome that being a “survivor” is unique to every individual. The five-year mark is no longer statistically significant because 97% of all breast cancer patients are still alive at the five-year mark. Also, reaching the five-year mark does not mean a breast cancer patient is cured. Depending upon your pathology report there are statistical risks of recurrence beyond the five-year mark.
In my own experience I believe I was healed when I had my surgery. Radiation treatment was part two of the surgery. Chemotherapy was preventative medicine. Passing the 48 month mark was statistically significant because my type of breast cancer has a high rate of recurrence within the first 36-48 months after the completion of treatment. As my oncologist said, it was an angry little cancer.
I now have a lot more knowledge about my specific diagnosis. As a result, I have made life-style changes and work hard to stay healthy. Knowing what I know, I celebrate each passing year. And that is how I define being a survivor. It is not past-tense. It is here and now. Every day.
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