When Julie Francisco was running on her 55th birthday, she could not ignore the pain in her lower abdomen and how “off” and slow her body felt. After a few more days and bad runs she decided to call her doctor and set up an OBGYN appointment. She was soon after diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
Now almost four years later, Francisco is still alive and wondering what makes her a cancer survivor because the answer, she determines, can be drastically different for physicians and patients.
There are so many different milestones and thing to consider when determining a cancer survivor including clinical definitions and tests as well as physical and emotional milestones.
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) determines that every day someone is alive after a cancer diagnosis they are a cancer survivor.
However, many cancer patients do not use these criteria for determining themselves. Francisco, for example explains that she did not consider herself to be a cancer survivor at all during her early diagnosis or even during treatment. Even though her outlook was positive because the cancer was found early, she feared how her chemotherapy would go and after 18 weeks of treatment she felt battered and exhausted. Her doctor told her many patients at her point consider themselves to be cancer survivors as soon as they complete their cancer treatments.
Some cancer patients however, like Francisco, may have additional concerns or scares even after treatment ends. Francisco, for example, found a cyst on her liver at her first CT scan after her chemo treatments. She had to come back for a follow-up a month later and felt unsure, doubtful, and scared during this time.
Remission vs. Cancer Free
Some patients also have confusion about the terms remissions vs. cancer free.
The NCI defines remission as being the state where the signs and symptoms of someone’s cancer is reduced (partial remission) or gone (complete). A person is considered in complete remission when their physical exams, clinical tests, and scans show clinical evidence of the cancer being gone.
Complete remission is also called (NED) or no evidence of disease by some physicians.
A person is considered cancer free by doctors when they have been cancer free or in complete remission for at least five years.
For Francisco, she considered herself a cancer survivor one and a half years after her initial diagnosis and all her tests and exams had no issues. She also had her chest port removed.
Everyone may have different criteria for determining themselves as cancer survivors.
Another thing to remember about being a cancer survivor is that survivorship also looks at a person’s life path during and after their treatments, all the way to the end of their life. Because cancer can affect the person’s quality of life, family, and caregivers so thoroughly, examining their healthcare and follow up treatments throughout their lives also factor into survivor-ship.
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