It’s been more than 20 years since I was diagnosed with colon cancer. In some ways, it still seems like yesterday. In other ways, it seems like a lifetime ago. But I’m living proof that yes, you can live a long life after cancer.
We’re all different: your cancer is different from mine. Even if you too face colon cancer, our two journeys may be similar, but no two cancer patients are exactly alike.
However, there’s a lot of hope for us cancer survivors. One of my favorite places in the world is the Cancer Survivors Park at the Kansas City Plaza because it has a lot of encouraging sayings like, “Always get a second opinion,” and “Never give up hope.” That’s what every cancer survivor needs to hear, on Day 1 and years later: There’s always hope.”
How has cancer affected your life?
I can’t think of one area of my life that cancer doesn’t impact these days, and that’s one effect of being a young cancer survivor. I think this may be unique to the fact I’m one of the AYAs with cancer (adolescent and young adult), because I’ve met other cancer survivors over the years who don’t feel the same way. They’ve been able to isolate the experience, and not have it affect absolutely everything.
For me, because I was diagnosed with cancer as a teenager—a time when I was still finding my way through life— it has impacted quite a bit. But, it’s not all negative. I’ve been fortunate to live a long life as a cancer survivor. In 22 years, there’s been a lot of good to come from my experience.
My caregiver, Mike, has been by my side for all 22 years. We had just started dating when I was diagnosed, and he’s stuck by me all these years. Being in a relationship when cancer hit strengthened our relationship, and it continues to strengthen our marriage. I know we’re fortunate, as many couples face marriage struggles and break up and/or divorce after cancer.
But for us, it showed us that we’re strong and we can get through anything. Our mantra, “God’s Going to Take Care of Us” came about when I was sick, and we’ve said it to each other a lot over the years. As a result, we’re still close to this day, and we’re passionate about helping couples survive marriage.
I’m infertile due to an ovarian suspension cancer surgery, so when it came time for family planning, we chose to forego IVF, and we pursued adoption. I’d always had adoption in my heart, even before cancer entered the picture. Cancer solidified adoption as our path. I’ve now got the roles of both adoptive mom and foster mom, and I can trace them back to my cancer history. And while it’s not been a painless journey, I’m thankful I’ve lived a long life after cancer and that it opened the door for me to become a mom.
Body and Diet
It feels like everything about my body, body image and diet is tied to having survived colon cancer in some way. This is probably the area where I feel cancer’s effects the most. Here’s a glimpse into what I mean:
- I get annual colonoscopies now (because I have Lynch syndrome).
- I wear a daily estrogen patch (because I’ve had a total hysterectomy).
- I take 4-6 Imodium pills a day (on a good day).
- I see multiple doctors throughout the year for regular follow-ups.
- I experience frequent GI flare-ups due to food and stress.
- Bowel obstructions are not uncommon for me, some have led to hospitalization.
- I’m constantly experimenting with diet and which foods I can and cannot eat. I have LARS, which makes this complicated.
- I’ve said goodbye to a lot of fried foods, popcorn, and nuts/seeds. If I do eat these foods, it’s only a bite or two.
- I have to do a lot of mental and emotional work to appreciate my body and everything it’s survived. I feel like I have a love-hate relationship with it at times.
- At the end of the day, I do take better care of my body and am more aware of it because of my cancer history.
I was in the throes of declaring a college and major when I was diagnosed with cancer, so from Day 1, it’s somewhat directed my career. Cancer exposed me to the world of public relations when a woman from the hospital asked me if she could photograph me getting a CT scan for a new brochure. This led to my major in PR, followed by years of experience working in the communications field. It was like a dream come true when doors opened for me to work with the team at Fight Colorectal Cancer. Even now, as someone who does freelance PR, a lot of my work is focused on healthcare clients.
Suffering affects our faith, no matter what type of suffering it is that we face. Deep questions about our beliefs surface when life doesn’t go how we’d hoped or planned. When injustices hit us, like cancer, one of the quickest things to crumble is our faith. This was true in my life, and it’s the same for many patients and caregivers facing cancer.
Can you live a long life after cancer? Yes. And, be ready for questions about your faith to come into play as you find your new normal.
There’s no easy answer when it comes to this topic, but I’ll offer my personal experience: Ride the waves of emotion (it’s OK to get angry at God), but don’t take your hands off hope. True faith starts as small as a mustard seed, and it will lead to a hope that can get you through anything.
I write a lot about this in my Monday Morning Survival Guide emails.
Friendships and Family
Cancer has impacted my relationships with friends and family in many ways. It’s inevitable that you’ll lose some friends over this. Every cancer survivor has gone through it…some friends come in close when you’re diagnosed and others disappear. Finding acceptance for this will be key to your sanity and stabilize your hurting heart.
There’s a definite sting that comes from feeling abandoned as a cancer survivor, but there’s also another side to that coin. Cancer can show you who really cares, and with whom to invest your time. Look for those who can support you through the good and the bad: those are good relationships.
Cancer can also introduce you to a new community of people who have either been through, or are going through, what you’re facing. Whether it’s people facing the same cancer type, people in the same generation, other cancer patients in your city, or fellow patients and caregivers being treated at your cancer center, there’s groups galore.
It’s true: Cancer can be very isolating. But, it can also be the spark that ignites new, profound friendships in your life; friendships that will last for the rest of your lifetime.
Can you live a long life after cancer? Yes.
Remember: your cancer path is unique to you. It’s tempting to compare your life with others and pour into survival statistics, but fight the temptation. Also: what exactly is a “long life”? Is it a certain age? A certain amount of years? What “long life” means to me may not be the same for you. We don’t all see life, time and age the same way.
So maybe instead of counting how many months or years you’ll get after being diagnosed with cancer, count the memories. Establish a gratitude practice that helps you appreciate the days. Pause and fully live in the moments, the minutes and hours, and don’t let them aimlessly pass by. Whether the amount of days we live after a cancer diagnosis are many or few, it’s how we spend that time that really matters.