Health Break | Published March 27, 2006 | Written by Aileen S. Galley, ACSW, LSW, administrative director, Cancer Program at Mount Nittany Medical Center, former chair of the Pink Zone Committee

Cancer Survivorship Begins At Diagnosis

You have cancer. Now what? Now you are a survivor.

One of our country's most visible cancer survivors, Lance Armstrong, educates the public through the Lance Armstrong Foundation. He states that "a survivor is anyone battling cancer. A survivor might be the person diagnosed, a spouse, a child, a friend or any caregiver. Survivorship begins at diagnosis, the moment your battle with cancer begins." Is this language descriptive of the experience of having cancer?

Some people living with cancer report they can't be survivors at diagnosis, as this title doesn't imply any milestones such as completion of treatment or years of being disease free. The distinction of survivorship at diagnosis is intended to be a powerful title. It informs others that a cancer diagnosis means you are living with cancer.

For cancer survivors, a daunting task can be choosing with whom to share the news of their diagnosis. The more people that know, the more potential there is to receive emotional and practical support. The challenge can be, how to field those well meaning but damaging comments some can make. You know, the stories people can feel compelled to share about their great aunt with the same cancer that didn't make it; or the friend who got so sick during her treatment; or perhaps the message is unspoken the tsk-tsk accompanied by a pitying look.

Of course, all these things can be intended to show support and find common ground. Instead of allowing negative messages to cast their web of fear and doubt, it can become a source of comic relief. How funny would it be to count the number of times people tell you a sad cancer story? It could become a private game that works to act as a shield against downbeat tales.

There is no doubt, a cancer diagnosis represents a frightening time one that causes questions about survival and fears about what to expect during treatment. We can boast of the hope inspiring statistics that there are 10 million cancer survivors in the United States. We can look at how pervasive cancer has become 3 out of 4 families will help care for a loved one with cancer. Still, there are some cancers accompanied by a less optimistic prognosis. People can experience a recurrence of cancer or even a new and different cancer, years later. The concept of survivorship is never more important than at these difficult times.

For cancer survivors, a critical aspect of coping is access to information and connection with other survivors. Support groups and the Internet offer vehicles for these connections. Another opportunity is in State College on Saturday, April 1. Sponsored by the American Cancer Society, A Cancer Survivors Conference: Providing Your Path to Knowledge will provide participants with workshops on finances, nutrition, humor, family issues, clinical trials and long-term follow-up following initial treatment. There will be panels of men and women survivors talking about their personal journeys and a keynote speaker visiting from Ireland who will tell of his own survival story. The conference will be hosted at the Nittany Lion Inn. Interested community members may call 888.227.5445, option 3 to register. On this special and inspiring day, no one will wonder if they are the only survivor facing these issues.

The National Cancer Institute defines cancer survivorship as the "physical, psychosocial, and economic issues of cancer, from diagnosis until the end of life. It includes issues related to the ability to get health care and follow up treatment, late effects of treatment, second cancers, and quality of life." The April 1 conference will work to address all these issues, allowing the journey of survivorship to be experienced with fellow survivors while receiving timely and validated information.

Language can be a powerful force. Being a cancer survivor is a powerful thing.

Aileen S. Galley is the administrative director of the Penn State Cancer Institute at Mount Nittany Medical Center.