Being a cancer survivor

Living as a cancer survivor is about more than just living in hope.

  1. Cancer survivorship rates
  2. Types of cancer survivors
  3. How to survive cancer
  4. How to mentally survive cancer
  5. How to thrive as a cancer survivor

Estimated read-time: 13 minutes

Cancer survivorship rates

According to the largest and longest global population survey, which encompassed statistics from 37.5 million patients in 71 countries and territories over a 15 year period, survival trends have risen overall. This even includes cancer survivors who have traditionally lethal cancers of the liver, pancreas, and lung.1

This increase in the number of people living as a cancer survivor than ever before is due to several main advancements;

  • Firstly, thanks to better education, more people know the early signs of cancer leading to quicker diagnoses and access to treatment, resulting in better outcomes.
  • Secondly, medical progress has produced a wider range of kinder treatments to choose from, giving many more patients options when previously there were none.
  • Thirdly, patients are now being treated routinely by a multi-disciplinary team of specialist medical professionals which provides a collaborative, holistic approach of collective minds to achieve the best possible care for the patient.2

Currently in the United States there are around 5% of the population is living as cancer survivors,3 with this number projected to rise to 22.1 million by 2030.4 In Canada, for example, 60% of cancer patients will live longer than 5 years past their diagnosis.5 The age of cancer survivors is also expected to rise, with one quarter of people living a life after cancer being over 65 years old by 2040 in the UK.6

Types of cancer survivors

There can be some confusion about the definition of the term ‘cancer survivor’.

Some are of the opinion that a cancer survivor is a patient who has lived past the 3-5 year mark with the cancer-free status of (NED), no evidence of disease.7However, the general consensus is that the word ‘survivor’ is used to describe a patient from the moment of diagnosis right through until the end of their life, either from cancer or another cause.8,9,10,11

For patients facing a poor prognosis, for example; who are suffering from some of the difficult to treat cancers such as lung, pancreatic and oesophageal cancer12 or have been diagnosed with an advanced cancer, being described as a ‘cancer survivor’ can be difficult to equate.

Yet many regard such patients as cancer survivors simply because they are still alive, resisting defeat13 and living despite a devastating illness threatening their life.

A more accurate description of being a cancer survivor, which can better explain what the patient has gone through or still is enduring, is to divide survivorship into different phases of time.

Being a cancer survivor
  • ‘Acute’ cancer survivorship is when a cancer patient is undergoing diagnostic testing and is actively receiving their treatment14 with a curative intent.15
  • A ‘chronic’ cancer survivor is a relatively new definition created in the last few years to describe a person who may have completed their initial treatment but are not yet cured. There may be some slow-growing cancer still remaining, or they find themselves in remission only for their cancer to reoccur and require further treatment.16
  • ‘Long-term’ cancer survivors are growing in numbers and require support over their lives to deal with the lasting impact cancer has had upon all areas of their lives.17 The description of a ‘long-term’ cancer survivor refers to a person living and enjoying a relatively normal life during long periods of being in remission despite their quality of life being impacted by the risk of secondary cancers or lingering side effects.18

It is difficult for oncologists to tell if a patient’s will definitely not come back and a ‘clinical cure’ has been produced, even if for some cancers the chance of relapse and the disease returning is extremely unlikely. In fact, some specialists believe that it is impossible to tell a patient they are cured, even if it could help them cope better mentally in survivorship.19 This is because rogue cancer cells have the potential to still exist despite all efforts and lie dormant.

Ultimately only the passage of time can definitively say whether or not the patient is cured.

How to survive cancer

This disease will not be wished away, there is no magic bullet, no one single cure for all cancers.

Not one single thing made you become ill with cancer. The formation of a tumour growing and spreading is a multi-step and multi-dimensional process. It most likely took a series of factors over a long period of time for your cancer to develop and it will now take a strategy encompassing many different medical and lifestyle improvements to not only overcome cancer but also to survive and thrive in the long-term.

Your best chance for a cure, or simply more time alive, begins with your treatment plan from your oncologist.

Researching and understanding fully every aspect of your individual disease will help you to not only get the best treatment and support available but will maximize your quality of life into survivorship.20,21

Having a strong inner desire to be a cancer survivor, and adopting an active approach22 to ‘fighting this disease’ is essential choice you have to make to give yourself the best possible chance of survival.

Fight this disease

A multi-faceted strategy of support will help you survive cancer by playing a part in maintaining your quality of life.

Who can you get support from when you have cancer? Your support system when facing this disease could be made up from;

  • your family
  • friends
  • your medical team
  • cancer charities
  • holistic therapists
  • dietitians
  • personal trainers
  • spiritual guides
  • counsellors (individual or group support)
  • the online cancer community

In general, there are several factors which can have positive effects upon survival times. How early your cancer was found, your baseline health going into treatment,23 keeping an active routine, catching infection early, attending all appointments and taking your medications as prescribed will all have an influence.

Becoming adaptive to all the challenges, stresses and strains cancer brings is an important skill to develop which will support your experience of cancer treatment and recovery. In fact, looking after your mental health and emotional wellbeing by accessing professional support should be a priority.

Finding highly resilient role models to inspire you, either from reading cancer survivor stories or from connecting with long-term cancer survivors online, who have lived through the same cancer type, stage and prognosis will motivate and encourage you to keep living in a positive way as long as possible.

If you are faced with a poor diagnosis the will to fight to live can still be there long past the point of realization when the seriousness of the situation dawns. You want to survive, despite the odds, you have so much still to give, so much to do.

If you are told that the options are limited, many will refuse to accept the bleak outlook of the doctors’ opinion. You are deeply shocked at the lack of progress in treatments and absolutely stunned by medical science failing you in your hour of need, especially when huge sums of money have been raised and spent on cancer research.

If you find yourself in this bleak landscape, willing to do anything to survive, it is very tempting to start to believe in outlandish cures you can find out there. You don’t want to hear that your fate lies in the short comings of the current knowledge of mankind and are desperate to be that miracle case which radically responds despite the doubters.

Although science sadly doesn’t yet have all the answers, the best chance of more time still lies in getting the best treatment your oncologist can access. The latest treatments on offer are based on evidence-based scientific research, not pseudoscience, and it is best to access them as early as possible.

An option for those who are without many options could lie in accessing a clinical trial of the latest drugs. Drug development takes a long time to get to the mass-market stage but there are many advancements currently at the development stage.

There are however many difficulties in doing so, and multiple hurdles to overcome with no assurances that a trial will give you any prolonged life.

Accessing clinical trials is a bit of a lottery as you are at the mercy of what drugs are being trialed at any point, and for whom, places are limited, and uptake is based on strict criteria. Then there is the issue of the location of these trials and the issues surrounding travelling when a patient is extremely ill, which must be balanced against the potential time taken away from spending it with family and friends.

Compassionate access schemes to the latest cancer drugs which are in the early development stage from the drug companies themselves. There will be again strict criteria with no guarantees but is another potential route to take when your options narrow.

How to mentally survive cancer

It is easy to feel mentally exhausted, emotionally spent, low in energy and lacking in vitality at any, and every point of the journey endured to become a cancer survivor.

The cancer world can be an entirely overwhelming, frustrating and alien place to be. Not knowing exactly how your cancer will respond to treatment makes you feel very out of control. You will feel threatened by the major changes happening to your life and helpless as you are forced to rely increasingly on others to get you through this illness.

As a cancer survivor all your physical time seems to be given over to the practicalities of medical appointments and protocols. This is all whilst your mental energy is now consumed by your illness, your every waking thought now hijacked, focused upon cancer.

To be able to build your resilience, to stay mentally well and strong, it is helpful to take a step back and gain some perception of how your emotional wellbeing has been affected by having cancer. This will enable you to be vigilant of any mental health problems developing, as the person who is traumatized and deep in suffering can be blind as to how they are actually coping.

By opening up and talking to a good friend or even a professional, they may be able to help you take a step back and remind yourself of your overall goal of getting better and how best you can support your overall health, both mental and physical, in your efforts towards surviving.24

It should also be an aim to mentally give yourself a break from the trauma, if at all possible, by finding some activity which will take your mind off cancer, even if it is only for a short time. Construct your own program to support your mental health by carving out time in your day or week and make it happen by writing it down in a diary or calendar.

By intentionally scheduling your time in this way you are more likely to make your self-care a priority. Use these times to be supported through; complementary therapies, improved lifestyle choices, professional help, escapism and even doing something fun. For example; an art class, music therapy, taking a mindfulness course or practicing meditation all may be useful for some. For others, exercise, doing a hobby you love, getting out and having some nice times with your family and friends is just what you need to balance out some of the difficult times.

Try to take back control of what you can have a say over, for example; how you manage stress and pain, what visitors you have and how long for, your lifestyle choices of nutrition, exercise, sleep and alcohol intake.25

Surround yourself with positive, pro-active people who support your efforts to improve your health and wellbeing. Try to limit your contact with those who are not making you feel good, who are negative or not very helpful or supportive in their approach for whatever reason.

How to thrive as a cancer survivor

There are some cancer survivors who are able to harness the energy created by trauma and re-direct it into a becoming a force for good and for change in a phenomenon called ‘Post-traumatic growth.’

These so-called ‘super-survivors’ of cancer can function better in times of high stress and are more resistant to the physical or psychological strains which are commonly experienced. It is an optimistic person26 who can achieve this, someone who is able to see the bigger picture and rationalize, in the midst of their despair, that this traumatic life event will not last forever, and there will at some stage be some light at the end of the tunnel.

This is not about denying that this terribleness has happened or shying away from feeling the greatest depths of sadness, sorrow, grief and despair. However, those who experience post-traumatic stress are able to appreciate that in life there is a time for everything, and these bad times will at some stage in the future will pass and life will get better.

They possess the ability to re-frame the situation and seek out any remote, vague positives they can find. They formulate a plan of small yet achievable actions they need to make happen in order to steady the ship, then they will work their way forwards despite any setbacks.

By putting one foot in front of another, they are determined to slowly claw their way out of the darkness. With a laser-like focus on moving away from the trauma they put all their hope and faith into their escape plan. They are confident that they will be able to get through this, that their difficulties will ease and will live in the knowledge that life will be experienced in a positive way again.

Such ‘cancer thrivers’ often display common themes in their individual ways of coping which lead to such triumph over trauma.27 They are able to reframe the negative experience and express freely the emotion they do feel going through the challenging time.28

Super survivors

They tend to turn to their support system communities of friends, family and cancer survivor groups without feeling guilty or indebted, knowing that they will be there to return the support one day. They see this illness as an opportunity life has given them to explore the transformative power spirituality or religion can have in times of emotional intensity.29 They not only enjoy the support offered by the associated communities but they also take the positives a connection with a higher power can bring, for example, feelings of; hope, gratitude, understanding, peace and acceptance going forward in their lives.

Those who cope well in recovery also seem to value the concept of paying forward the good they received back to the cancer community and will use their experience to help others in turn. By doing so, their journey gains meaning, the cancer survivor gains a real sense of purpose, an overall improved quality of life is experienced30 and the cancer survivors’ mental wellbeing is protected.31

Those who are able to not only survive and exist in their post-cancer life but are able to live well by freeing themselves from living in the constant stress and worry of reoccurrence, are survivors who take their recovery seriously.

They will overhaul their lifestyle choices, making improvements which will increase their chances of survival. They will also closely following the recommendations of their follow-up plan directed by their oncologist of routine examinations and tests, monitoring and reporting promptly any changes they notice in their bodies.32

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Recommend to others facing cancer, on support forums, social media, in person or by email. Thank you.

Cancer survivor lifestyle

References

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