Cancer Survivorship – What Does It Mean?

It was time for our annual 4th of July family gathering to celebrate the 17th birthday of my nephew, Tyler.  His father, my former brother-in-law, is a 35 year survivor of Stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I’ve written about Trent before as his life is inspiring.  He was not expected to live, and when he did live, he was told he would never have any children because of the strong chemo drugs he went through in the late 1970s.  The drugs Trent had to endure are no longer used.  These drugs were used for torture during World War I.  Plus, Trent had no anti-nausea drugs like we are so fortunate enough to receive now.

As Trent and I stood talking, my nephew who resembles his dad in so many ways, walks up and immediately with a smile says, “cancer talk” as he could tell  by our demeanor what Trent and I were discussing.   It is a secret language when cancer survivors get together.  Last time Trent and I had a deep discussion, I was still in patient status.  Now I graduated to his level and better understand his cancer survivorship talk.  If you are a cancer patient, be encouraged about the lessons you are learning through the great suffering.  If you are a cancer survivor, you will understand.  If, thankfully, you have not had to endure cancer, life can teach you these lessons in a myriad of ways.  But try to go the easy route and learn them on your own so some severe disease doesn’t have to be the teacher.

Trent says that quite frequently people ask him why he is always so happy.  He then shares with them that he has won the lottery twice in his life – being a cancer survivor and having the son he was told he would never have.   Immediately, Trent launches into how you hear some people saying things like “the worst day on the golf course is better than the best day at work” and complaining about every little thing in their lives.  Trent and I then discussed how we try not to judge others, but feel like we have discovered the secret to living knowing that we were so close to death.  “It is all about your attitude,” Trent shares, “and don’t get caught up in the little things that don’t matter.”

I had this Subway Solid Wood Sign designed with important words that I believe it takes to go from Cancer Patient to thriving Cancer Survivor.  Free Shipping to Continental USA – take a look at my store   or click on the Sign Picture for more information!

Survivor Sign Black

I recently read this article by Dr. Lissa Rankin entitled “10 things I learned from people who survived cancer.”    There are many truths to her writings.  However, we all know cancer patients who really wanted to live, but didn’t –my own father being one of them.  My dad died only 3 months after being diagnosed with Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer.  God only knows the answer to that much bigger mystery.   But I share Dr. Rankin’s article, because Trent and I determined there is so much truth in all of the things she writes in this article

As a physician who interviewed women who had survived breast cancer. . . and who studied patients who experienced spontaneous remissions from cancer as part of the research for my book. . .I discovered that those who had overcome cancer shared one remarkable thing in common. They had all faced death and made a conscious decision to live every day like it might be their last.

The more interviews I did, the more I noticed that these people were living differently than most of the people I knew who had not been diagnosed with cancer. Curious what I learned?

Here’s what these courageous people taught me about how to live.

1. Be unapologetically YOU.

People who survive cancer tend to get feisty. They walk around bald in shopping malls and roll their eyes if people look at them funny. They say what they think. They laugh often. They don’t make excuses. They wear purple muumuus when they want to.

2. Don’t take crap from people. 

People who survive cancer stop trying to please everybody. They give up caring what everybody else thinks. If you might die in a year anyway (and every single one of us could), who gives a flip if your Great Aunt Gertrude is going to cut you out of her will unless you sell out your authenticity to stay in her good graces?

3. Learn to say no.

People with cancer say no when they don’t feel like going to the gala. They avoid gatherings when they’d prefer to be alone. They don’t let themselves get pressured into doing things they really don’t want to do.

4. Get angry. Then get over it.

People who survive cancer get in your face. They question you. They feel their anger. They refuse to be doormats.  They demand respect. They feel it. Then they forgive. They let go. They surrender. They don’t stay upset. They release resentment. But they don’t stuff their feelings.

5. Don’t obsess about beauty.

People who survive cancer no longer worry about whether they have perfect hair, whether their makeup looks spotless, or whether their boobs are perky enough. They’re happy just to have boobs (if they still do). They’re happy to be alive in their skin, even if it’s wrinkled.

6. Do it now. 

Stop deferring happiness. People who survive cancer realize that you can’t wait until you kick the bucket to do what you’re dying to do. Quit that soul-sucking job now. . . Prioritize joy. Live like you mean it—NOW.

7. Say “I love you” often. 

People who survive cancer leave no words left unspoken. You never know when your time is up. Don’t risk having someone you love not know it.

8. Take care of your body.

People who survive cancer have a whole new appreciation for health. Those who haven’t been there may take it for granted. So stop smoking. Eat healthy. Drink in moderation. Maintain a healthy weight. Avoid toxic poisons. Get enough sleep. Above all else, prioritize self care.

9. Prioritize freedom and live like you mean it.

People who survive cancer know that being a workaholic isn’t the answer. Money can’t buy health. Security doesn’t matter if you’re six feet under. Sixteen hours a day of being a stress monster is only going to make you sick. . .

10.  Take risks.

People who survive cancer have faced their fears and gotten to the other side.  They know life is for living because they almost lost it. True aliveness and in taking risks. So go sky diving if you want. Bungee jump. Hang glide. Spend your savings.  Live like you might die tomorrow.

Are you doing these things? Or are you waiting for a life threatening diagnosis to test out how much you want to live?


  1. Denise…
    I have not had cancer, but I enjoy reading your blogs.
    My sister has survived breast cancer THREE times. She understands.
    Love to you, and all of those people who live each day like it’s their last!

    • Julie – thanks so much for writing. I appreciate your reading my Blog.
      You have watched your sister…and everything she has had to endure.
      That qualifies because it is not easy watching people you love suffer!

  2. Denise, I also would like to repost your blog today. May I? I just read Mike Terrill’s latest posting on saying good-bye to loved ones and the messages about figuring out your priorities and focusing on what really matters hit the spot. Thanks for posting this. Cheryl

  3. Reblogged this on Not Down Or Out and commented:
    Lately I have been writing about life “post”-cancer. There are no promises that it is over. For some of us, cancer returns. Treatment can continue for the rest of a person’s life. For others there are long-term effects from cancer treatment. Sometimes these effects are also life-threatening. Regardless of the outcome, there is no going back to the way things were before my diagnosis. Denise has posted this week some observations made about people’s initiatives for taking on life after diagnosis and treatment. I liked it as I was feeling a fair amount of pressure to cope yet again with challenges to my peace of mind just when I hoped to kick back for a week or two of relative leisure. This posting reinforced the messages of support I had already received from many friends and bloggers. I’m taking no prisoners. Some of the suggestions are a little extreme for me, but living a happy life means different things for different people. The Rx in this posting has ideas for all kinds of situations. Thank you, Denise, for inspiring me!

  4. As a current cancer survivor, I can relate to what you’re saying…my future may be uncertain, but I live each day to the fullest. I hate cancer, but I can honestly say that it’s changed me for the better in a lot of ways. I appreciate more, take less for granted, and love unconditionally. I have far less tolerance for drama, and am more forgiving. Most importantly, I feel the obligation to spread awareness and help others who are struggling with this disease. Life is precious, and even while we are fighting to get through it, there is so much good we can do. Thank you for spreading the word…this was excellent!

  5. Hi Denise. This is a really inspiring post. Do you rent yourself out as a personal life coach? 🙂 I get the feeling reading your posts that some of this comes from personal experience…saying no, getting rid of things and people that drag you down. If so, good for you! I am stage 3 like you, going through chemo as we speak. I’m feeling a great need to make some life-altering changes; I’m just trying to find the courage to step out of the false comfort of the “status quo”.

  6. This was a wonderful post. I am just now learning to say that I am a survivor. I’m 2 months since my 6th round of chemo, and my doctor says that the cancer is gone. I know that the lymphoma can come back. I hope it doesn’t but will live life every day in case it does.

  7. Hi Denise
    I want to thank you for all the great information you’ve shared with us. I found your blog about 3 weeks before radiation and just finishing up my chemo. I am now down to 2 more radiation treatments and after a long 10 months will finally be done (and cancer free of course).

    My doctors are quite surprised at the condition of my skin. They only wanted me to use Miaderm so I didn’t try anything else but I applied it 10 days before radiation and at least 4 times a day. I’m fair skinned so it was expected that I would burn and peel. As of today, I am pink and a little itchy in places but nothing unbearable. I am convinced that applying the cream liberally and often before as well as during helped save my skin. I wish that I had applied it closer to my neck because I seem to be more pink there and i focused on the underarm but both are still doing well.

    Another hint that helped me work through the fatigue was being active. The Y has a FREE 12 week program for cancer survivors called Live Strong. Its really a great program and helps you work through the tough parts of chemo and radiation. While I never could have worked out during the A/C part of chemo it certainly helped me through the end of chemo and all of radiation. I row on a crew team, work out at the Y twice a week and walk 2-3 times a week for 4 miles each. I’ve kept my weight down and while I still have some fatigue – most days are great. I’ll be 69 in December!
    Brief history – found a lump in my breast November 10, 2012, had a mascectomy on November 29th, got shingles on my face/ear on December 10, chemo A/C followed by taxol beginning January 14. Radiation daily June 24. Have neuopathy in my feet from the taxol and i was in my third treatment when i read about your ice suggestions. Those probably would have helped. So I’m feeling great that its almost over!
    Thanks again for all your information it was certainly a blessing for me!

    • Lyn, CONGRATULATIONS on being done in 2 more rad treatments! YOU DID IT! It is such a long road. Thanks for your wise words about the LIVE STRONG program at the Y and your cream suggestions for Rads. I used Miaderm too, and it really helped!
      Ohmygosh, I just read the part that you will be 69! I thought I was writing to a 30 something with all your activity! Thanks for being an inspiration to all of us! Denise

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s