…between fine and horrible.
This great summation of living with cancer came from a recent visit with my survivorship clinic therapist, Dr. B.
Let’s take a moment to think about what a survivorship clinic is. Obviously, this is a way to help cancer survivors and their families deal with the many physical and emotional outcomes of cancer treatment. But, increasingly, as more people (like me) become chronic cancer patients rather than dealing with a single acute case, the issue of survivorship has become a challenging problem. And it’s a problem that requires viewing from many perspectives.
In 2012, the American Cancer Society estimated there would be 18 million Americans with a history of cancer by 2022. I’m sure that number has increased significantly over the past 5 years.
Let’s start with the patient’s perspective. As someone who has been categorized as a survivor for the past 5 years or so, I can tell you (and I have) that the perspective shifts mightily when you must confront cancer as a chronic condition. Look, any person who’s ever had cancer or lived with someone with cancer will tell you that the fear of recurrence is omnipresent, even though it may recede to the cobwebby portions of your brain for periods of time. There’s even an abbreviation for this in the literature: FoR. But it’s not just the fear of recurrence. There is also the hard reality of facing ongoing cancer care, in one form or another, for the rest of your natural born life. Together, these fears and reality checks make the world look a little different.
Now a darker shadow looms over the question of whether it might be possible to ever have a family. You find yourself wondering if you’ll be able to see your nieces and nephews (biological and otherwise) graduate from college or get married or save the world. You worry about how this might affect your ability to travel or consume alcohol or just live your normal life. Whatever that was. You even wonder if you’ll be able to reach that end point you’ve long imagined: “when I’m an old woman I shall have long silver hair that cascades beautifully and in a not-unruly manner over my surprisingly attractive old lady shoulders.”
And then there is the patient’s spouse, caregiver, and/or family. These are the people who help the patient deal with the day to day realities of “surviving.” And who, in turn, have much surviving to do themselves. Surviving the constant trips to treatment or the hospital or to pick up medical supplies. Surviving their own versions of the omnipresent fears. Surviving their own worries or guilt about what prompted that cancer in the first place. Figuring out how to live a life that is rich and satisfying while managing physical and emotional baggage that can totally change relationships, for better and worse.
The doctors, meanwhile, are mostly trained to treat a specific physiological problem. But chronic cancer, like other chronic diseases, engages more than just a specific affected organ. It affects your mind, in the ways described above and countless others. State of the art cancer care is highly integrative in its approach for this very reason. But the medical system is still in the early stages of figuring out how best to care for chronic cancer patients. Treatment advances mean that some cancer patients (mostly those “lucky” enough to have common types of cancer like breast and prostate) can live for decades, occasionally having to “intensify” their treatment as Dr. M told me, but then enjoying long periods of “deintensified” treatment.
I’ve been surprised by how many oncologists have said to me, “well, we hope there might be a breakthrough/cure in the future that will end this as a chronic condition.” Assuming this optimism is based on their medical knowledge and not just blind faith, it’s great to hear their hopeful words. This is still a fairly new optimism, though.
And then, finally, there is the perspective of the broader medical establishment. As treatments improve, this means more people will live with cancer, be in remission from cancer, or even be cured of cancer (but still suffer its aftermath) for decades. This poses a huge range of questions and potential challenges for an already overburdened healthcare system.
The Centers for Disease Control even developed a National Action Plan for cancer survivorship in an effort to frame it as a national public health priority. They identified “four core public health domains: surveillance and applied research; communication, education, and training; programs, policies, and infrastructure; and access to quality care and services.”
Aging cancer survivors not only have the emotional and physical baggage of their treatment(s) to deal with, they also will develop all the normal pains and problems that come with age: hypertension, cardiovascular disease, etc. And the icing on this not-so-delicious cake is that cancer survivors may even develop additional primary cancers from their exposure to radiation or chemotherapy. (See this paper for many references on these previous points.)
Note that I have not included the insurance perspective in this. Given the outrageous shenanigans going on in the US House and Senate right now related to health insurance, I don’t really have the patience to dive into this variable of the survivorship equation sufficiently.
I will say this: any approach to health insurance that doesn’t cover pre-existing conditions, chemotherapy drugs, mental health, lab services (we cancer patients get a lot of blood tests), or that slashes Medicaid or places lifetime limits on coverage, is a non-starter for your average cancer survivor. In fact, it might be more accurate to say that the absence of those types of coverage (all of which have been under consideration at one point in the House and/or Senate bills) is a death sentence for cancer patients and survivors.
So, survivorship is, indeed, a complex and precarious line between fine and horrible.