The yellow brick road to survivorship

Published 10:17 am Friday, June 28, 2024

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Nicole DaVia, PA-C

Survivor: “A person who continues to function despite setbacks or hardships.”

Cancer: “An evil condition that spreads destructively.”

Two very powerful words. Put them together and you get “CANCER SURVIVOR.”

The definition of a Cancer Survivor is “Any person diagnosed with cancer, from the time of initial diagnosis until the end of life.”

The combination of those two words defines myself and many people among us. Based on the National Institute of Health government statistics, in 2022 there were 18.1 million cancer survivors.  This number is estimated to increase to 22.5 million by 2032.  16.3 million survivors are living 5 or more years and 47% 10 or more years since their diagnosis.  67% of these survivors are 65 years old or older.

But what does this mean for you, the Cancer Survivor? It can be a time of fear, uncertainty, anxiety, worry, guilt, and grief. Most of us worry about whether the cancer will reoccur. This is the scariest part of having had cancer. We are not given that crystal ball that we can look into and see the future. Having faced something that could have led to our demise if we had not undergone treatment, makes it harder not to worry about whether it is going to come back. But life is not guaranteed to anyone and nobody is given a crystal ball, unless you were the Wicked Witch of the West from “The Wizard of Oz”. And Dorothy got her in the end! As cancer survivors, we have learned that life is not something to take for granted and that every day is a blessing that should be cherished. We have to learn not to think of the “what ifs” but to focus on the here and now, because none of us are guaranteed tomorrow, no matter how healthy we are. Yes, there will be those days that get the best of you, especially if you are reminded of your cancer journey in some way, but we must set that aside and move forward, down the yellow brick road to the Emerald City!

Another feeling that a cancer survivor can experience is that of grief. We grieve over our diagnosis, the pain we feel during treatment, the physical scars cancer has left on our bodies, and the friends that we have lost to cancer. I am constantly reminded every day of the physical scars, and there is not a day that goes by that I do not take a minute to remember the many friends and family that are not with me physically today. I tend to turn it around and look at this in a positive way. These are my battle scars and they constantly remind me of how strong I am to have overcome such an ordeal. I believe in the saying “It’s what is on the inside that counts”. Those that have gone before me have left an indelible mark on my life and the way I live it. Even though they may not be with me in body, they are always with me in spirit.

It is very important for you to know your body. Some signs or symptoms that you want to watch for are unexplained weight loss, a new lump or bump that does not go away, unexplained shortness of breath, unexplained headache, blood in the stool, abnormal skin lesions, unexplained bone pain, bleeding or bruising.  We need to be advocates for our health care.  We need to make sure that we are getting the appropriate screening exams done, not only for us but our family members as well.  This also goes for those who have not had cancer.  It is important to get the proper screening tests like colonoscopy, mammogram, Pap smear, low dose CT lung cancer screening.  Please contact your health care professional if you have any concerns.

We also need to be aware of our mental well-being. We need to be able to recognize the signs and symptoms of depression or anxiety. Many of us who have had cancer can experience anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress. It is important to recognize if you are not sleeping well or are sleeping all of the time, do not want to participate in activities with others, not eating, feeling empty inside or hopeless, irritability, and fatigue. If you are experiencing any of these signs or symptoms, please let a health care professional know, as there is help available.

We all know that being a cancer survivor takes a lot of guts. There are many obstacles that we have faced and will have to face on our “yellow brick road through survivorship”. But if we have the courage and knowledge to face these hurdles, the leap can be less scary. I have addressed just a few of the issues that you as a cancer survivor may face and I hope that this article helps you make your journey through survivorship smoother. Again, please contact your health care provider if you would like additional information or if you have any concerns.

Nicole DaVia, PA-C is a physician assistant at the Marion L. Shepard Cancer Center, a department of ECU Health Beaufort Hospital, located at 1209 Brown Street in Washington. During the month of June, the trees at the hospital have been lit purple to celebrate and honor cancer survivors.  Spotlight on Cancer is made possible by the generous donations to the Shepard Cancer Center Development Council.