National Cancer Survivors Day is an occasion that unites all of us who have faced the challenges of cancer and emerged as survivors, symbolizing strength, resilience, and hope. As a stage 4 metastatic breast cancer patient, I have a more complicated relationship with this day. While I may not fit the conventional definition of a “survivor,” I’m learning to embrace resilience and find hope in my complicated journey. National Cancer Survivors Day is a reminder that hope exists even in the face of the harsh reality of an incurable disease.
In spring of 2019, I remember the time I got to ring the bell after completing my last chemotherapy treatment. After all, it’s something so many people look forward to after completing their treatment and a powerful symbol of strength and hope. A friend of mine brought balloons and champagne to my treatment, and made the moment even more special. We got to celebrate the milestone that everyone hopes they’ll have. I even had a special trip lined up with my closest friends to truly honor the occasion, because it was over and I never wanted to look back. The future was bright, and I was so grateful!
But then the following week I was told that I’d have to do at least one more chemotherapy treatment. My oncologist was worried that because of some complications I had earlier on in my chemotherapy journey she wasn’t convinced I had enough treatments to give me the best odds of preventing a future recurrence. I couldn’t believe it. I was angry and upset at the situation, but also at myself. I was mad that I celebrated so hard because I should have known better – things change all the time. Then I felt guilty, because I celebrated so openly and I didn’t even think about how this is something so many people won’t ever get to celebrate. They’ll never be finished treatments, and they’ll never be considered a cancer survivor.
So, the day after I got back from that booked celebration trip with my friends, I jumped back into chemo. This time I went alone, this time I did not ring the bell, and this time it felt a lot different. As I walked out of the chemo suite after my treatment, another patient was being rolled out in a hospital bed and I thought to myself, I wonder if they’ll ever get to ring the bell? It hit me just how lucky I was, and how I was one step closer to being finished with all my treatments, and one step closer to being a cancer survivor. Never in a million years did I think I’d be back in chemotherapy less than 3 years later, in the same shoes as that patient in the hospital bed.
Traditionally, a cancer survivor is defined as someone who has completed their treatment and remains cancer-free. However, for those of us living with an incurable form of cancer, the concept of survivorship takes on a different meaning. We navigate the rocky landscape of never-ending treatments, constant monitoring, and uncertain futures living scan to scan. Yet, within this delicate situation we find the strength and resilience that deserves recognition. We are cancer survivors because we are currently surviving with cancer.
As incurable cancer patients we can harness our voice and experiences to advocate for ourselves and others. We become champions for research, improved access to treatment options, and support for those in similar situations. National Cancer Survivors Day empowers us to raise awareness, challenge stigmas, and foster a greater understanding of the ongoing needs of patients like us. We find purpose in our advocacy, knowing that what we do helps create a brighter future for everyone affected by cancer. National Cancer Survivors Day is a celebration of our tenacity, our determination, and our unwavering belief that hope shines brightest when we’re all in this together.