February 15, 2012


1. the act or fact of surviving, especially under adverse or unusual circumstances.
2. a person or thing that survives or endures, especially an ancient custom, observance, belief, or the like.

Defining survival appears straightforward, but within cancer circles it isn't. The days are gone when your medical professional declares 'You're cured!'. Instead, careful language filled with scientific precautionary and cautionary thinking is used. Terms like 'no evidence of disease' and 'long-term remission' now dominate.

Let me say up front that I am not complaining. The fact I am even thinking about this aspect of cancer means my treatments did what they were supposed to do and for now I have no evidence of disease.

In cancer circles I get to say: I'm n-e-d

I like the new vocab because while being realistic and pragmatic it still allows for bouts of spontaneous celebratory dancing. I am technically, at this stage and time, and according to standard medical imagery and oncological understanding, cancer-free. I may not stay that way (indeed, 50% of colorectal cancers reoccur), but I am that way now and that is enough to ride the optimism bike as far as the eye can see.

But have I survived?

Not according to medical researchers, because they measure cancer survival as being alive five years and ten years post-diagnosis. This is the benchmark and the universal metric used in clinical trials and in hospital and governmental reporting.

It's all about how you play the game
Maybe, according to the Cancer Council, because they define a survivor as someone who has finished 'active' cancer treatment. Does my 11 months of further anticoagulation therapy count? And what about the fact I am still living with a 'temporary' ileostomy?

Yes, according to the National Centre for Cancer Survivorship (USA) that states that you are a survivor from the date of your diagnosis.

Process or end result?

The survival question really is one of process versus end result.

My thinking is that working from the date of diagnosis is the most practical. But what about the five to ten years (the time it takes for a polyp in the colon to become cancer) that I was living with cancer before my diagnosis?

I like the idea of acknowledging the process of living and surviving with cancer, and not the final outcome. The date of diagnosis is really just the date that I became aware of my cancer. My body knew long before I did - It had been fully engaged in attacking the tumour and was surviving.

Actually, my body was enduring under a large tumour load, on top of alcohol consumption, large amounts of passive smoking (people can still smoke nearly everywhere in China), and eating fast food and chocolate.

Someone that died three months after their diagnosis survived three months (and more) in my opinion. Someone that died seven years after a second bout of lung cancer survived seven years (and more). Someone having chemotherapy is surviving. And so is someone cancer-free after 15 years.

A focus on the process seems consistent with talk of a 'cancer journey' anyway. There is no need to get hung up on the end point, whether that is death or life, because cancer is a process and so is healing from and living with it.

#5 on the Cancer Charts