For those who have been diagnosed with cancer, their loved ones, and the cancer community at large, the title of this article is fully understandable. For those lucky enough never to have been touched by cancer, it’s a puzzling thought. But either way, careful examinations and discussions of cancer survivorship are hard to come by. It’s time for that to change. Welcome to a new day, sisters!
A diagnosis of cancer is a personal 9/11. And like that fateful day, we all remember exactly where we were, what the circumstances were, perhaps even what we were wearing when we heard the words, “You have cancer.” It was also at that moment that we technically became survivors and began our survival against the beast. All of us can agree that our diagnosis became a line in the sand, dividing our lives into the time before cancer and the time after it.
The shock of diagnosis is followed by a carefully choreographed plan of treatment. We’re swept along in a sea of doctor appointments, body scans, surgeries, infusions, and more. Although sometimes frightening, our treatment tide gives us the security that someone is doing something to save our lives. At the end of all this flurry, those of us who are told we no longer have any evidence of disease rejoice. We take pictures on the last day of treatment. We leave behind our nurses and fellow patients showered with balloons, flowers, and smiles.
And then reality sets in with a loud question: now what? Fatigue, joint pain, night sweats and fogginess become our constant companions. Fear, sadness, guilt, depression and anger join in. Bills pile up. Former interests feel stale. Friends don’t understand. We’re no longer caught up in our secure little ocean current but left stranded on a desert island. We’re thrilled we’re alive, but confused and frightened by what kind of life is ahead of us.
Our sister survivors who have metastatic or manageable (but incurable) disease face another set of challenges. While often still within some kind of treatment framework, their journey is tiring. And while the future is uncertain for all survivors, this group lives with the 800 pound gorilla of cancer in every room they enter.
The bottom line for all of us: Cancer is loud. And it takes up a lot of real estate in our minds and our lives.
But the tides are about to turn. We have arrived at the dawn of a new day for survivorship. Women survivors are seven million strong in this country – 7 million! That’s a bigger number than the populations of New Zealand, Norway or Denmark. We are truly a large and very important segment of the American population. It is imperative, then, that our challenges be acknowledged and addressed for us to continue as contributing members of society.
We are also exactly what the doctor ordered when it comes to understanding the disease and its treatments. We’re like survivor astronauts, going where no (wo)man has gone before. Our treatment side and after effects are of great interest to physicians and pharmaceutical companies, so they can better understand how to treat those who will come after us. Our entire survivor selves are of great interest to researchers, so they can better understand what allows the human body to fight and heal itself in the wake of such an aggressive disease. We are paying it forward simply by drawing a breath.
The very fact that we are still of this earth makes us important. Together, through awareness for survivor issues and survivor programs, we will make better lives for ourselves and others. The Women Survivors Alliance is always looking for new ideas, new advocates, new partners. Just like the Uncle Sam recruiting posters, we want you as much as we hope you want us!