Thank God television and movie script writers are starting to “get it.” Cancer, “The Big C,” doesn’t always kill people, or maim them, or steal their dreams. Lately there have been new TV shows acknowledging cancer as part of life that many can live through. There’s a new movie coming called 50/50 about a young adult man with cancer (important to acknowledge it in this age group!). I hope he doesn’t die in the end. But from the preview, it’s clear he talks to people about it – including young women he is trying to date. It’s a comedy. On Showtime on cable TV there’s a series, The Big C, where actress Laura Linney plays a teacher with melanoma and a year to live. The good news is they had a second season!
My point is there are now nearly 12 million cancer survivors. Three of work them at Patient Power (one is me, almost 61, one is in her 50’s, one is just 18). More and more of us do not have just months or a year to live. We are true survivors. We have to start watching our cholesterol and taking baby aspirins, we have to watch our weight, plan for retirement or manage a fixed income. For the young one, it’s plan for college. We have to think about who we might vote for in the next election. We are LIVING! Maybe for a full lifespan, maybe not, but living each day with purpose.
Yes, it’s true there could be “another shoe” that drops, either a return of cancer or the increased chance we’ll develop a new one. Or a side effect of the powerful cancer fighting drugs or the surgery or radiation may bring us down. But little by little our ranks are growing.
How do we get our heads around that? How do we pick ourselves up, move past worry or depression, find approaches to minimize side effects and live well? It’s a hot topic. That was the focus, as it is every year, of the annual gathering of MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Anderson Network. This year, the biggest gathering, had more than 600 survivors. Each wore a colored lanyard to hold their name tag. And the color for 10 or even 20 years of survivorship was showing up more this year than ever. It’s an inspiration for the newly diagnosed and should be a message to the writers back in Hollywood.
Do people with pancreatic cancer typically not live many years – people like Patrick Swayze? That’s true. But Mary Sharkey, a pancreatic cancer survivor I have interviewed, has been living 15 years. Have I known people who have died from chronic lymphocytic leukemia, my disease? Yes. But, thank God, I am living a full life 15-years after diagnosis. Is my colleague, Pat Elliott, living with a chronic form of leukemia that used to be terminal and doing so through daily medication? Yes, she’s a dynamo who keeps me on my toes!
I attended this year’s conference and was energized by it. I interviewed three people there, and we’ve created a new Cancer Survivorship page that I hope you will visit. We’ll continue to add to it with positive guidance, up-to-date information, and a connection to the experts. In the latest interviews you’ll hear from oncology social worker Lynn Waldmann, a cancer survivor herself. In the field 40-years, she has seen it all. I also interviewed Dr. Ray DuBois, provost at MD Anderson. His institution is now committed to more carefully planning cancer treatment so that down the road problems are minimized. He wants people not just to live, but live well. And I just had to interview James Brown of Houston, the world’s most energized 11-year prostate cancer survivor and weekly hospital volunteer.
Any cancer diagnosis is tough on the patient and family members, friends, and co-workers. And it will hit one out of every three of us. But erase from your mind that cancer necessarily means an early death. It is so variable now in this age of personalized medicine. Twelve million survivors! Almost four times as many as 40 years ago! Definitely way too few when there are 1.4 million new patients in the U.S. each year but the numbers are growing, TV and movies are acknowledging it, and you and me may well have better than a 50/50 shot to live a long full life. I sure hope so and hope that the young man in the movie does well. It premiers in a couple of weeks so I guess I’ll have to see it to find out.
Wishing you and your family the best of health!
*This blog post was originally published at Andrew's Blog*