Cancer Survivors: In Their Words
This year alone, an estimated 1.8 million people will hear their doctor say they have cancer. The individual impact of each person can be clouded in the vast statistics. In honor of National Cancer Survivor Month, Cancer Today would like to highlight several personal essays we’ve published from cancer survivors at different stages of their treatment.
In this essay, psychiatrist Adam P. Stern’s cerebral processing of his metastatic kidney cancer diagnosis gives rise to piercing questions. When he drops off his 3-year-old son to daycare, he ponders a simple exchange: his son’s request for a routine morning hug before he turns to leave. “Will he remember me, only a little, just enough to mythologize me as a giant who used to carry him up the stairs? As my health declines, will he have to learn to adjust to a dad who used to be like all the other dads but then wasn’t?” he questions.
In another essay from a parent with a young child, Amanda Rose Ferraro describes the abrupt change from healthy to not healthy after being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in May 2017. After a 33-day hospital stay, followed by weeklong chemotherapy treatments, Ferraro’s cancer went into remission, but a recurrence required more chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant. Ferraro describes harrowing guilt over being separated from her 3-year-old son, who at one point wanted nothing to do with her. “Giving up control is hard, but not living up to what I thought a mother should be was harder. I had to put myself first, and it was the hardest thing I had ever done,” she writes.
In January 1995, 37-year-old Melvin Mann was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia, which would eventually mean he would need to take a chance on a phase I clinical trial that tested an experimental drug called imatinib—a treatment that would go on to receive U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval under the brand name Gleevec. It would also mean trusting a system with a documented history of negligence and abuse of Black people like him: “Many patients, especially some African Americans, are afraid they will be taken advantage of because of past unethical experiments like the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study,” Mann writes, before describing changes that make current trials safer. Mann’s been on imatinib ever since and has enjoyed watching his daughter become a physician and celebrating 35 years of marriage.
In another essay, Carly Flumer addresses the absurdity of hearing doctors reassure her that she had a good cancer after she was diagnosed with stage I papillary thyroid cancer in 2017. “What I did hear repeatedly from various physicians was that I had the ‘good cancer,’ and that ‘if you were to have a cancer, thyroid would be the one to get,’” she writes.
In another piece for Cancer Today, Flumer shares how being diagnosed with cancer just four months after starting a graduate program shaped her education and future career path.
For Liza Bernstein, her breast cancer diagnosis created a paradox as she both acknowledged and denied the disease the opportunity to define who she was. “In the privacy of my own mind, I refused to accept that cancer was part of my identity, even though it was affecting it as surely as erosion transforms the landscape,” she writes. “Out in the world, I’d blurt out, ‘I have cancer,’ because I took questions from acquaintances like ‘How are you, what’s new?’ literally. Answering casual questions with the unvarnished truth wasn’t claiming cancer as my identity. It was an attempt to dismiss the magnitude of it, like saying ‘I have a cold.’” By her third primary breast cancer diagnosis, Bernstein reassesses and moves closer to acceptance as she discovers her role as advocate.
As part of the staff of Cancer Today, a magazine and online resource for cancer patients, survivors and caregivers, we often refer to a succinct tagline to sum up our mission: “Practical knowledge. Real hope.” Part of providing information is also listening closely to cancer survivors’ experiences. As we celebrate National Cancer Survivor Month, we elevate these voices, and all patients and survivors in their journeys.
Cancer Today is a magazine and online resource for cancer patients, survivors, and caregivers published by the American Association for Cancer Research. Subscriptions to the magazine are free to cancer patients, survivors and caregivers who live in the U.S.