A cancer diagnosis encourages us to know both the fragility and hopes of life, and with that knowledge to live most fully.
I loved being a physician. Throughout the years of medical training and practicing medicine, I strived to understand patients’ experiences to help me personalize and optimize their care. After my cancer diagnosis in 1990, I was struck by how difficult it was to deal with a type of cancer with no known cure, and by how unprepared I felt. I was only 36 years old, with three young children.
One thing that helped me adjust was my belief that I was about to begin an invaluable education on illness and healing that I could use to help other patients. The doctor in me observed and analyzed my reactions to every big and little experience—chemotherapy, radiation therapy, recurrence, remission, and signing a consent form for a clinical trial. I learned so much about the challenges of patienthood while I waited: waited for my name to be called for doctor visits, blood tests, scans, and treatments. Waited to learn test results. Waited to learn my options for the latest health problem. What did I think? Feel? What made things worse? Most important, what helped?
The week of my diagnosis, I was introduced to the term, “survivor.” I’ll always appreciate how it kept me from ever feeling like a “cancer victim”—the commonly used term back then for people with cancer. It troubled me, though, that anybody who had a pulse after a cancer diagnosis was a “survivor.” I asked myself: what kind of survivor do I want to be? “Healthy” popped into my mind because “healthy” means “conducive to a good outcome” and connotes a wholeness of body, mind, and spirit.
In 1992, I coined the term Healthy Survivor as a survivor who (1) gets good care and (2) lives as fully as possible. The beauty of this term is that Healthy Survivors are defined by how they live (and not how long), and Healthy Survivorship helps patients make life the best it can be.
In 1993, ongoing illness forced me to retire from clinical medicine. Fortunately, I discovered a different but equal passion: writing and speaking about Healthy Survivorship—the science and art of making life the best it can be after a cancer diagnosis.
The centerpiece of my approach to Healthy Survivorship has been to find and nourish hope. From the moment of my diagnosis, I knew I needed hope. Everyone kept telling me to Have hope! Of course, people cannot turn on hope like a light switch. That’s when I began exploring what hope is, how it works, and how to find hope. Not just any hope but healing hope—hope that helps me get good care and live as fully as possible.
My long survivorship has confirmed for me that there is no one “right” way to do cancer (or do any single aspect of cancer). But there are best ways for each person. And learning about hope helps. Given the importance of hope in healing, it boggles my mind that clinicians are not taught how to nurture patients’ hope along with lessons on anatomy and physiology. It shocks me that today’s patients are urged to have hope without anyone helping them know what to hope for and how to nurture hope in tough times.
With gratitude for my survival and the care that got me here, I’ve been sharing through articles and books what I’ve learned, hoping to help others find their best path as quickly as possible. It thrills me to see so many excellent resources available today on topics that were hardly discussed when I began writing about them, such as recovery and long-term survivorship after completion of treatment (After Cancer—A Guide to Your New Life), raising children when a parent has cancer (When a Parent has Cancer), and cancer-related fatigue (Resolving the Frustration of Fatigue). Still, there is much more work to do.
Today. I am too old to die young. I have loved my life despite the losses—and sometimes because of them. The hard-earned insights and tips played a role in helping me outlive my prognosis, along with excellent medical care and good luck. Throughout my survivorship, the lessons learned helped me “live” as fully as possible each day. The lessons I most want everyone to know are these: There is Always Something Good to Hope for and We can Always Take Steps to Find Hope.
I see life through a different lens now. Everyday I wake up I thank God I am breathing. I don't take things for granted and I am much more grateful for the small things/moments in life. I give back to others now since so many people helped me and my family when I was sick.
Cancer has impacted my life positively by teaching me to live in the moment, be more grateful, and appreciate the little things.