The theme for this year’s World Cancer Day is “Close The Care Gap”. The Day was first recognized in 2000. In the last twenty-two years the global incidence of cancer has increased by more than 15%, with unequal access to care being a continuing problem — compounded more recently by the COVID pandemic.
“I will not let cancer define me” is something I hear a lot, but I don’t understand it. I understand that refrain still less when I hear survivors allude to their heightened vigilance about their health. I’ve also heard of cancer survivors who prefer not to acknowledge that they ever had the disease — I don’t understand that either. But cancer is not a monolithic disease, and these divergent opinions reflect the spectrum of the cancer experience — for patients and families alike.
It was a hot Thursday afternoon in June. I was at work, and I’d just returned from lunch. I began to orient myself to where I’d left off earlier, bugging my eyes out on reams of data and poking holes at the statistical model I was trying to build. On days like this it was really easy for me to get completely absorbed in my work and lose track of time, as well as what was going on around me. So when my phone rang I was startled and had to rummage around my desk to locate it under a pile of papers. I finally found it and the number wasn’t one I recognized but I answered it to stop the persistent ring. After perfunctory greetings, the disembodied voice at the other end said, “The results of your biopsy are back. I’m sorry to tell you, you have breast cancer.” Being the overachiever I’m told I am, I had not one, but two types of breast cancer — invasive, and DCIS. Everything else the voice said just faded out.
Cancer is a crushing diagnosis to receive, and I think everyone deals with it differently. Once I was done speaking to the disembodied voice, everything after was a blur — things oscillated from moving very fast, to moving as if I was walking through very thick treacle. I wasn’t sure what I should do because I sat in an open cubicle with no privacy at all, and to process this crushing diagnosis I needed to be unconstrained by my surroundings — I had to get home.
Slowly, as I began to replay that phone conversation in the privacy of my own home, the weight of what I’d heard became unbearable even as I shared it with my family. The…