In the 1980s, advocacy groups for people with cancer, including the National Coalition of Cancer Survivorship, worked to change the way our culture looks at people with the disease. Instead of "victims," those dealing with the disease — beginning when they are diagnosed and continuously, throughout their lives — are called "survivors." Some people expand the "survivor" classification to include family, friends, and caregivers.
Many cancer survivors lead normal lives with few, if any, side effects. In fact, two-thirds of survivors report that cancer has not had a significant long-term impact on their lives, according to research published in 2003 in the International Journal of Cancer. Some may go into long-term remission.
But some survivors, like Peggy Chehardy, Ph.D., a 57-year-old medical educator in Louisiana, may live with cancer as a chronic disease requiring periodic treatments. She had Paget's disease of the vulva, a type of cancer that has a high likelihood of recurrence.
"I didn't know cancer could be considered a chronic disease," she said. "I thought of it as black and white — that you had to fight the disease if you didn't want it to come back — and that causes a lot of stress. But if you know it's chronic, you have to respect what it is and deal with it."
Some survivors may battle the return of cancer, while others may even get different cancers. John McKemie, a banking executive in Houston, has battled several kinds of cancer over the past 20 years. He's drawn on every tool he could find — staying active, relaxation, visualization, prayer, volunteering — and he encourages others to do the same.
"People have to find their own way," he said. "You have to mobilize everything you can to effectively face cancer, live with it, and, hopefully, get it behind you."
Printed with permission from The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center ©2010.