On June 5, people across the country celebrated National Cancer Survivors Day to honor those who refuse to let cancer dictate their lives.
The day was filled with inspirational moments from survivors sharing stories of living well beyond their initial prognosis, heartbreaking remembrances of those we have lost and accounts from caregivers and loved ones fighting their own battles while caring for someone they love.
It was also a time to recognize that people with cancer are living longer. Although the average life expectancy for mesothelioma patients is low (12-21 months), some survivors have been living years beyond that prognosis.
National Cancer Institute (NCI) statistics show the number of people in the U.S. living beyond their cancer diagnosis reached 14.5 million in 2014 — and it’s expected to jump to 19 million in 2024.
That’s nearly five million more people who’ll be living fruitful lives alongside their loved ones. Today, we reflect on the hope and inspiration provided by current and future survivors, as well as those no longer with us.
How Has Cancer Changed Your Life?
Although every cancer journey is unique, they all share one thing in common — the diagnosis will bring about change.
That change varies from person to person and whether it was you or a loved one diagnosed.
We reached out to some mesothelioma survivors, caregivers and those who champion a ban on asbestos, the toxic mineral that causes mesothelioma, to share their stories with us:
- “I know it sounds odd, but in some ways, cancer changed my life for the better. Losing my husband to mesothelioma has been the greatest tragedy of my life, but his diagnosis — which came within months of my own melanoma diagnosis — taught me to live my purpose every day. Watching Alan battle cancer is the reason I co-founded the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), the largest independent nonprofit in the country working to prevent asbestos-caused cancers and diseases, and I have dedicated my life and energy to it ever since.” — Linda Reinstein, ADAO Founder and CEO.
- “Cancer has changed my life for the better, I think. I have found the need to surround myself with the family I love, and I think they have all rallied around me. My granddaughter actually moved from Massachusetts to Florida because she said she needed to build a greater relationship with her Meme and Pepe and wanted to make sure her three-year-old daughter, Izzy, knew us and loved us as we loved them.” —Richard DeLisle, pleural mesothelioma survivor.
- “Sadly, I feel like cancer took everything from me. My husband couldn’t handle the pressure and is now gone. My everyday life is a real struggle; I’m living cancer-free, but suffering from so many after effects due to my ostomy and weight. Nutrition and dehydration always make me tired, but my son encourages me to keep going every day. Without Tyce, Jaidyn, all of my family and friends and lots of prayers, I wouldn’t have been able to get through it all!” — Raeleen, peritoneal mesothelioma survivor.
- “Cancer has changed my life for the better. I have met amazing people, and it has allowed me to really pay attention to the simple beauty in a day and in a person. It has given me insight I never had or even thought about. It has taught me gratitude.” — Cheryl Tompot, 22-year breast cancer survivor.
- “I have not personally had cancer, but cancer has most definitely changed my life. The experience of caregiving for my husband Brian during his illness from mesothelioma and witnessing his death two years later has made me very aware of the fragility of life…” — Lorraine Kember, caregiver.
- “Perhaps it would be easier to tell you which aspects of my life that weren’t changed by cancer — not a single one. Mesothelioma and other forms of cancer grip entire families. When one of us is affected, we are all affected. When my father became ill, we all took on different roles within the family. We stood in battle with him. Every tiny part of me changed when I lost my dad. Such a loss is so devastating to every member of a family. Once I was able to sort through the anguish associated with losing a parent, I have been able to transform the hurt into something much more meaningful. I am my father’s daughter, and in many ways, his fight made me the woman I am today. I have found a way to use my pain to help others understand the emotions they experience. Through a career in clinical mental health counseling, I can draw from my father’s strength and perseverance to support others who are battling mesothelioma.” — Melanie Bell, caregiver and daughter.
What Does the Word ‘Survivor’ Mean to You?
Being a survivor means something different to everyone.
For some, it means simply getting to the next day. For others, it’s following a medical timeline. There is no right answer. Instead, never give up and never stop moving forward.
- “Had I been asked what the word survivor meant in 1993, I’d have simply replied that the term refers to one who has physically outlived their illness. Having experienced a mesothelioma battle alongside my father, I have a different understanding of “survivor.” Although my father’s body succumbed to illness, his legacy has survived. His memory is kept alive each time his name is whispered. I am his legacy, as are my children, and perhaps someday, my children’s children. As a “survivor,” I have a duty to support and advocate for others who are affected by mesothelioma, and stand with those in search of a cure.” — Melanie Ball.
- “I guess I would have to say the word ‘survivor’ would have to mean that so far, I have looked mesothelioma in the eyes and said, ‘I may have your unwanted and despised presence in my body, but you don’t have me, and I will fight you with every ounce of breath I have to the very end.’ My mother had leukemia and fought it for years. And guess what? She didn’t die from leukemia, and I don’t intend to [die from cancer] either!” — Richard DeLisle.
- “It means not giving up in the face of this terrible diagnosis. It means living your life, not your cancer.” — Linda Reinstein.
- “Survivor has a whole new meaning to me now. Every day is a blessing. I was diagnosed with stage IV mesothelioma! I found a surgeon to operate on me, and he saved my life! I had to fight hard through all of it, and surviving is a gift from God, so that I can still be a mom to my beautiful boys.” — Raeleen.
- “To me, the term ‘cancer survivor’ means someone who has successfully beaten cancer and has been cancer free for more than five years. This is because, sadly, secondary cancer usually becomes evident at the five-year mark or just after.” — Lorraine Kember.
- “Every moment from the moment I was diagnosed, I was a survivor. Rising above the challenges I face with the disease, I with God have more power than cancer, and cancer doesn’t define me. Truly though on any given day, being a survivor or the definition of it can have many different facets. As long as you are here on Earth, you are a survivor.” — Cheryl Tompot.
What Do You Wish Someone Had Told You in the Beginning?
In the weeks after you or a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, you will have a million questions.
You never know what to ask or what to look for. It’s terrifying. But with the help of others, you can get by. You can do this.
- “I wish someone said just take it one minute at a time, not one day at a time. A day was too overwhelming at first.” — Cheryl Tompot.
- “I wish they had told me that some people fight this cancer and actually do survive for years, instead of telling me I probably had five to nine months to go. I know we have to know the facts, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, but my God, try to give people some hope! Instead of letting you think it’s all over, encourage them to give it their all to survive. I’m at four years and counting right now, and I am still doing well. Does that sound like five to nine months?” — Richard DeLisle.
- “When Brian was diagnosed the doctor told us only that it was terminal and that he had between three and nine months to live. His exact words were: ‘Mesothelioma, three to nine months, I reckon.’ Not knowing what to expect as Brian’s disease progressed, I was very frightened of what might happen to him and saw every symptom he experienced as a sign that death was near. My fear escalated when the three-month marker of his prognosis passed and I would not let him out of my sight in case he died leaving me no chance to say goodbye.” — Lorraine Kember.
- “I wish someone had told me that all the simple things become your most prized memories; the way someone smells, the sound of their voice. Those are the things you wind up telling your kids about. I wish I had more video and audio of my dad. We had a few VCR tapes that have long been worn out. I wish I could hear my father’s voice as it really was, not just the way it sounds in my head.” — Melanie Ball.
- “Let people into your life. Family and friends want to give, help, share and listen.” — Linda Reinstein.
- “Truthfully, that I had a chance to live! That there was hope. Sadly, my oncologist said, ‘Get your affairs in order. I had months to a year to live.’ With two kids, I did not accept that. I found a surgeon who could extend my life. And he did exactly that! Almost two years later, I’m still here one-year cancer-free and still fighting! Attitude is 90 percent of a cancer battle. Always have hope and believe and pray to God every day. Real life is going to throw you some curve balls, but never give up; close your eyes and swing! — Raeleen.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where it feels as though everyone knows someone with cancer. Whether it is your father, your daughter’s schoolteacher or your next-door neighbor, you know someone whose life has been permanently changed because of a cancer diagnosis.
Just this year, an estimated 1.7 million people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with cancer. We cannot give up in our fight against cancer.
It is with the help of medical researchers, patient advocates, caregivers and cancer survivors that we are able to support the millions of people living with cancer. Together, we can make a difference.
Whether you were just diagnosed or you’re nearing your five-, 10- or 15-year survival mark, you are an inspiration, a warrior and a hero. You are a survivor.