What I Wish The World Knew About Fighting Cancer

7 cancer warriors share what they want you to know about the terrifying disease.

February 2, 2018
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Cancer. Just the word can strike fear into our hearts. It’s no wonder: Each year about 1.6 million new cases of cancer are diagnosed in the United States, and close to 600,000 people die of the disease. Nearly 40 percent of Americans will have cancer at some point in their lives.

However, there is good news. In the United States, cancer deaths fell by 13 percent between 2004 and 2013. That’s in part because treatment has advanced. It’s also because more people are catching cancer early, while it is still more treatable. Educating yourself on early cancer detection could save your life.

These advances mean that more people than ever are living with cancer for years or even decades.

We talked to seven cancer warriors and asked them one important question: What do you wish the world knew about fighting cancer? Here’s what they had to say.

Act normal, please

Amber Fallon, 34, is a horror author, podcaster, and lover of dogs. Just before she turned 30, she was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer. When her thyroid was removed, doctors told her the cancer has spread to the surrounding tissue. Here’s what she wants others to know:

We won’t break. Hug us. Talk to us. Don’t treat us differently because we’re fighting cancer. Normalcy can be the best gift sometimes.

“Even though having cancer asks you to be strong and to live more boldly than ever before, we all benefit from our loved ones being able to recognize how vulnerable we feel.”

—Stephanie McLeod-Estevez

We can’t always be strong.

Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, 43, was diagnosed three years ago with stage 3a breast cancer. Her children were 5 and 7 at the time, and the diagnosis was especially scary since her own mother had died from cancer when McLeod-Estevez was 26. That loss had an impact on McLeod-Estevez’s decision to become an art therapist specializing in working with cancer patients.

The one thing I wish the world knew about fighting cancer is that it impacts your body, mind, spirit and sense of self: It is not just a medical problem. Cancer survivors often feel lost, confused, and traumatized by the process of being diagnosed and treated. Even though having cancer asks you to be strong and to live more boldly than ever before, we all benefit from our loved ones being able to recognize how vulnerable we feel. Healing emotionally from cancer is possible; however, it takes time, attention, support, and processing of what we went through in order to feel like we are whole again.

There’s a lot that goes into wellness.

Kelly Gallagher, who describes herself as “ageless,” was first diagnosed with cancer in her twenties and has survived the disease five times. Now she produces health documentaries that focus on a holistic approach to wellness.

I honestly wish the world knew about all of the natural remedies available. I want people to understand that their food and environment impact their immune system. And that dental issues and emotional components are issues that need to be addressed if we want to regain optimal wellness.

I’m still me.

Courtney Parizo, 39, has battled chronic health issues for all of her adult life. But when she was diagnosed with cancer last year, she was shocked at how differently she was treated.

I wish I’d known the stigma that seems to be attached to people hearing that you have cancer and the way people seemed to immediately treat me differently, like I was suddenly made of glass where I had been concrete before.

I wish I could have worn a sign or handed out instructions to people that said, “Yes, I have cancer. No, it doesn’t mean I’m going to die or that I suddenly need to be sheltered or not told about the problems my friends and family are having. I don’t need to stay in bed all day, can still do most things I did before, but yes, I am often tired and worn down. I don’t need your sympathy, your platitudes, but I could probably use your help!”

“I do not wish cancer on anyone, however I wish the world could understand how hard we fight to maintain a “normal” life despite living with cancer. Maybe the world at large would stop and realize the insignificance of petty things and maybe we as a society would be more humble and kind.”

—Fabianna Marie

Fighting for your life is hard.

Fabianna Marie, 40, was diagnosed at 27 with metastatic (incurable) breast cancer. She has become a national speaker and advocate for cancer patients.

The one thing I wish the world knew about fighting cancer is that it is a full-time job that involves not only body but mind and spirit as well. I have devoted nearly 13 years to fighting, all while continuing to learn and grow as an advocate, mother, and wife. I have fought for my rights as a cancer patient, to have my voice heard by my doctors, and to have my choices for my body be acknowledged. I have learned that cancer does not define me as a person. Cancer has made me stronger spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. I do not wish cancer on anyone, however I wish the world could understand how hard we fight to maintain a “normal” life despite living with cancer. Maybe the world at large would stop and realize the insignificance of petty things and maybe we as a society would be more humble and kind.

It leaves a lasting mark.

Lindsey, 36, was first diagnosed with leukemia when she was 10. She underwent three years of treatment at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where she now works in fundraising and awareness. She is now cancer free and participates in studies about the long-term effects of treatment for childhood cancer.

The one thing I wish the world knew about fighting cancer is that long after the treatment ends, the impact of cancer remains. Even though much of the physical effects of the illness and treatment may heal, there is a lasting mark that is left behind. Most often, these traces of my cancer journey are not visible at first glance. However, my cancer has changed the way I engage with the world and those around me.

While I refuse to allow my cancer to define me, it does deeply impact the way I experience life. I hold a little tighter, I laugh a little louder, and I take time to pause…to take a breath and find the beauty and wonder in that moment. Yes, the hectic schedules and the infinite pile of laundry and homework are all still there. However, I cherish that fact that I am able to experience all of life, with its joy and sorrow, with my children, with the love of my life (and fellow St. Jude survivor), and with my family and friends. This celebration of life is what called me to return to the hospital that saved me. As a survivor, it is my privilege to pass this gift along so that other children have the same opportunity to grow, to love, and to live.

“I found out while sick the second time that of all the government money that goes into cancer research, childhood cancer receives less than 4 percent. I quickly realized that I was not only battling for my health, but battling for my worth. While I was lucky enough to go on to live a healthy life, many of my fellow ‘head shavers’ were not—and I can’t help but believe they are worth more than 4 percent.”

—Devin Duncan

Kids get cancer too.

Devin Duncan, 25, was diagnosed with leukemia twice—once at 3 years old and once at age 17. She now lives in New York City and works in public relations. She hopes to raise awareness about childhood cancers.

The one thing I really wish the world knew about cancer is simple: Kids get cancer too. I’ve noticed through years of talking to people about my illness that nobody wants to talk about sick kids—it’s sad, it’s negative, and it’s downright scary. But it’s real.

I found out while sick the second time that of all the government money that goes into cancer research, childhood cancer receives less than 4 percent. I quickly realized that I was not only battling for my health, but battling for my worth. While I was lucky enough to go on to live a healthy life, many of my fellow “head shavers” were not—and I can’t help but believe they are worth more than 4 percent.

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