June 7th was Cancer Survivorship Day. It was day for celebration, reflection and action. In the United States today there are more than 14 million cancer survivors. In 1972, when America declared war on cancer, fewer than 50 percent of cancer patients survived five years. Today, nearly 70 percent of all individuals diagnosed with cancer will be long-term survivors.
The improvement in cancer survival is a direct effect of the investment in cancer research and in public policy initiatives. It’s a testament to the work that has been done by researchers, physicians, public health officials and legislative bodies across our country. It’s also a testament to the courage, determination and resiliency of cancer survivors everywhere.
Today is also a day for reflection. This year alone, 600,000 Americans will die of cancer. More people will die of cancer in the United States in the next two years than have died in combat in all U.S. wars. Yet federal funding for medical research has declined more than 24 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars since 2003, forcing cancer centers to halt promising research.
Another flipside of success is that many of the 14 million cancer survivors have physical, psychosocial, philosophical, spiritual and financial issues that aren’t always addressed by our health-care system. Cancer patients require ongoing surveillance to detect any recurrence or new cancer that may develop. Cancer treatment can lead to many life-altering side effects that may develop long after treatment has ended. Survivors need education about the late effects of treatment and access to high quality evidence-based care of the lingering effects. We need a health-care system that promotes wellness rather than a system that focuses solely on treating the disease.
When I grew up in the 1950s, cancer was considered a mysterious, sinister, largely incurable disease with no known cause. Today we know that nearly 70 percent of all cancers are preventable. One-third of all cancer is caused by tobacco. Nearly one-third of all cancer is caused by obesity, inactivity and unhealthy eating.
The concepts of health and wellness are as important to cancer patients as they are to any of us. Studies have shown that cancer patients who engage in vigorous physical activity while undergoing cancer treatment will actually have fewer side effects and better outcomes. Studies have also shown that patients who engage in healthy eating and maintain normal body weight will have a lower likelihood of cancer recurrence. Recent studies have also shown that cancer patients who participate in stress reduction programs such as mindfulness meditation can reduce anxiety, decrease pain, improve energy levels, boost immune systems, and improve quality of life.
Mindfulness meditation is proving to be a great tool for anyone looking to improve their sense of well-being. Mindfulness is not a religious practice; it’s a simple technique to quiet the mind and bring awareness and acceptance to our lives. Learning how to pay attention to one’s breath in a quiet, controlled setting ultimately teaches one to develop awareness and acceptance in all aspects of our lives. As Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the leading experts on mindfulness-based stress reduction, says, “It’s about living your life as if it really mattered, moment by moment by moment.” This summer, Above + Beyond Cancer will begin a Mindfulness Meditation program for cancer survivors and caregivers at the new Wellmark YMCA in downtown Des Moines.
I am inspired every day by the patients and families that I am honored to serve. Let me tell you about two survivors that inspired me this week. JoAnn Tuttle is 75. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1967, when she was 27 and the mother of two preschool children. She was scared beyond belief. Back then, no one spoke much about cancer. She underwent a radical mastectomy and has lived with lingering painful side effects. In 1997 her cancer recurred, spread and became incurable. During the last 18 years she has undergone numerous rounds of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
She knows that she has not reached the end of her cancer journey, but she is a survivor. In addition to her husband and her two now-grown children, she has six grandchildren and three great grandchildren. How does she describe her 48 year journey with cancer? “I’m blessed and thankful,” says JoAnn. “I placed my trust in God and doctors. I’m going to live each day ’til God calls me home.” She has lots of love left in her life.
Charlie Cutler is 25-year-old architect who was diagnosed with lymphoma while he attended Iowa State University two and a half years ago. His long and winding cancer road has taken him through the hallways of many medical centers in Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota. He has been through treatments, recurrences, two stem cell transplants and more needle sticks than a pin cushion should have to bear. Through it all, Charlie continued to run, cycle, climb, work, laugh, dance and enjoy life to the fullest. He and his friends had an epic RAGBRAI last year, before he resumed treatment.
Charlie received word last month that he is now in full remission. He jokes that this year, he’ll up the ante. He and his brothers tease their mother that they are planning a trip to Alaska for a combination helicopter skiing, mountain climbing and bear hunting expedition. He teaches each of us, whether family, friend, or caregiver, to live our lives with courage and gusto.
As a cancer physician, I’ve learned so much from my patients and their families. Cancer, even when it is ultimately curable, reminds us that we are mortal. It also reminds us what we sometimes forget: that life is a blessing to be lived each and every day. It’s ironic, but cancer, a sometimes fatal disease, can actually teach us how to live our lives. It has the power to wake us up to reality and inspire us to purse lives of purpose, passion and compassion.