When I was first diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1984, at age 26, I heard but three words: “You have cancer.” Then my mind went to “Brian’s Song” — that 1971 TV movie that chronicled the life and death of pro football player Brian Piccolo. Piccolo also had testicular cancer, which in the movie was bluntly referred to as “terminal cancer,” and he was 26 when he died. Even though I knew my odds for long-term survival were much better than his because of the advances in chemotherapy, I focused on one famous victim rather than on my own good prognosis. In the intervening years, however, I’ve learned to focus on — and celebrate — my survivorship.
It kills me (pun intended) when I read obituaries of those who have died of cancer: “Dirty Dancing” actor Patrick Swayze, TV news anchor Peter Jennings, “Charlie’s Angels” cast member Farrah Fawcett, former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Apple founder Steve Jobs, to name just a few. Where are the headlines about living, breathing cancer survivors? Do you know that former secretary of state Colin Powell, actors Kathy Bates and Ben Stiller, supermodel Janice Dickinson, and newscaster Tom Brokaw are all cancer survivors? Cover stories, alas, are generally reserved for the dead.
It falls to us, the survivors, to write the headline that cancer isn’t a de facto death sentence. In fact, there are nearly 17 million cancer survivors alive today, according to the National Cancer Institute, with that number projected to rise to 21.7 million by 2029. (Meanwhile, cancer deaths fell by 25 percent between 1991 and 2014, according to the American Cancer Society.)
Last month, I celebrated 35 years since my diagnosis by having a quiet dinner with friends; they made a toast to me and I to the many others who have faced this disease. Other folks I know have marked a “cancerversary” by planting a tree, taking a special vacation, kicking off a fundraising campaign or hosting a celebratory party. People worldwide celebrate National Cancer Survivors Day, which is held on the first Sunday in June.
Rituals like these help us to take stock of the passage of time, as well as to take ownership of our health history. “For some, it is an opportunity for empowerment,” said Shelley Fuld Nasso, CEO of the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship, “to define a certain date to share with family, friends and others about their experience and what they went through. For others, it is simply a personal time to reflect on their experience, while perhaps closing one chapter and starting a new one.”
Lidia Schapira, director of the cancer survivorship program at Stanford University Medical Center, told me that survivors who choose to celebrate milestones do so because “they recognize that life changed in important ways. Some may feel joy while others may experience . . . sadness or grief but most will remember the moment of diagnosis as important.”
Personally, I choose joy. This year, I also chose to make a public post on Facebook that proclaimed, yes, I’m still here:
It’s now been 35 years since I was first diagnosed with cancer. . . . Honestly, I never thought I’d be so lucky to be here now. I am thankful to my doctors, therapists and other health professionals. To my dear friends — on and off Facebook. And to my family. When I was first diagnosed, my friend Cynthia gave me this ‘Fairy God Bunny’ — whom I took with me to every appointment, chemo treatment, and hospital stay. People thought I was a bit weird — and maybe they were right. But he — or is it she? — proved to be a talisman for all these years and is never far from me. And like me now, a bit worn and frayed — but still here. I know I’m lucky in so many ways — and that too many of my friends were unlucky. I am remembering you, too. Love, Steven
We survivors don’t all mark time the same way. Some count from when treatment began or ended, from the time they were considered in remission or “NED” (no evidence of disease), or the five-year mark that for many kinds of cancer says, “Cured.” Cancer.net’s Schapira suggests starting from the moment of diagnosis, because as she says, “survivorship begins at diagnosis and lasts forever.”
That’s why I count from April 24, 1984, the afternoon when an oncologist at the University of California at San Francisco told me those three dreaded words.
Jessica Dunne will mark 10 years since her breast cancer diagnosis later this year.
“That may call for a quiet celebration,” she admits, but adds that she doesn’t want “to tempt fate by going overboard.”
Sam Chapman, married to relationship and sex therapist Laura Berman, who had breast cancer seven years ago, emphasizes, “The gift of cancer is that you learn to prioritize things differently and how to live in appreciation for life.”
“When do you guys celebrate?” I ask. Without missing a beat, Chapman replies, “We celebrate every day!”
When I posted on Facebook this anniversary, I noted more so than in previous years the number of friends who also acknowledged their own diagnoses, including classmate Cassandra Perry, diagnosed with breast cancer (“15 years for me. Here’s to celebrating birthdays!!!”) and a neighbor, Barbara Younger, who faced endometrial cancer four years ago (“I celebrate with a huge amount of relief and a bounce in my step and I try to be mindful of those who . . . may not be getting such good news”).
Not surprisingly, cancer survivors have mixed emotions about milestones and anniversaries.
Paula Martinac, diagnosed a decade ago with Stage 4 endometrial cancer, told me: “Every year I think about collapsing at work and being rushed to the ER. I was diagnosed shortly thereafter. . . . My annual with my oncologist always instills fear.”
Louise Sloan was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer two years ago and explained, “The people I know that celebrate anniversaries of negative events like illnesses . . . seem to spend more time being sad. I guess celebrating being cancer free is positive but I’d much rather focus my attention on other things. I am not interested in ‘cancer survivor’ as a primary identity.”
I’ve found that taking ownership of these emotions works best for me. That may be why I’ve got Pink’s “Raise Your Glass” buzzing in my brain. “Won’t you come on and come on and raise your glass (for me),” she sings. And I raise my glass to one and all marking their cancer anniversaries, any way they prefer.