February 4th is World Cancer Day. Started in 2009 to bring attention to cancer, the day is marked by events and news coverage focused on cancer prevention, detection and treatment.
But cancer is ubiquitous throughout the year. Around the world, 10 million people die each year from the disease, mostly in low- to middle-income countries. In the US, 40% of adults are likely to receive a diagnosis at some point in their lives. And yet, many of us remain so blissfully unaware of cancer, what we can and can’t do to prevent it, how it is treated, the life-changing impact it has on patients and their families, and the psychological, financial and physical side effects it leaves behind. Until we face it “up close and personal.”
Meanwhile, for those living of us with a diagnosis, every day is another day in cancer world. It is impossible to escape. Once we hear we have cancer, suddenly it is everywhere. And we continue to see the world through the cancer lens long after the diagnosis and treatment. For those with recurrent or metastatic disease, or unlucky enough to receive a second diagnosis of a primary cancer, that world often feels crushingly small.
The lack of mutual perspective and appreciation between the have and the have nots can lead to misunderstanding and frustrating inaction. On social media, folks without a diagnosis are often referred to as cancer muggles. They can’t understand the reality of a cancer diagnosis any more than average citizens could understand the wizardry of Harry Potter’s reality. And for many without personal exposure to the disease, the world of cancer is as hidden as Hogwarts.
The Realities of Cancer
Like so many scary facts in life—like systemic racism, local and global poverty, political unrest, persistent disease—if we choose not to look at them, we can pretend they are not there. Until we are confronted with the realities of a diagnosis—our own or that of someone we cherish—we can’t fully appreciate it’s power. But we can try.
There is a lot about cancer that we still don’t know. But there are some things the experts and cancer patients have figured out that everyone should know:
- Cancer is not one disease but many different diseases—that’s what makes it so hard to treat, never mind cure.
- About a third of the most common cancers are preventable. Do your part to choose a healthy lifestyle and help reduce the burden of cancer.
- But don’t blame someone for getting cancer. There are factors beyond personal control, such as age, genetics and environmental exposure.
- Early detection saves lives—get screened early and often, and don’t let nagging symptoms go unaddressed. It makes a big difference in your treatment and prognosis if it’s stage one vs. stage three or four.
- Cancer is an emotional diagnosis in addition to a physical one. It’s not just because the diagnosis brings instant fear and need to face one’s mortality. Cancer and it’s treatment change the body at the cellular level. And those changes drive brain chemistry, which influences how we feel.
- The specific disease and its treatment, as well as our own DNA, past experiences, personalities and coping styles all influence the physical and emotional response we have to cancer. Please don’t compare your great Uncle Bob’s prostate cancer experience from five years ago to a friend’s current diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer. They are different diseases with different trajectories, different treatments and different resonances. And please don’t say anything that starts with …”at least it’s not…” or “it could be worse…” Instead, ask your friend how she is feeling about it all, validate those feelings as genuine and appropriate, and give her some support.
- It can be hard to know anything about what a patient is going through unless you ask him. So ask. Listen to his answer with an open heart. And think long and hard about what it might feel like to be in his shoes. Chances are, he’s not sharing all of his fears and emotions with you. Most likely that’s because one of the ways he can find the strength he needs to get through it all is by putting up some walls around his own emotions. Cancer makes us all awkward and tongue tied. Sometimes it’s better just to offer a (well masked) hug.
Coping with cancer is hard. There are no magic curses to keep it away, no wizard hexes to make it disappear, and no secret potions to restore physical and emotional health after an ordeal. But, education and awareness can help every step of the way. What can you do to help spread the word on World Cancer Day?