Time for a New Cancer Paradigm
When I meet someone new, there often comes a question about what I do for a living and my mid-life career change. I take a deep breath before answering this question because it requires revealing my diagnosis of follicular lymphoma two years ago. This diagnosis resulted in me leaving my 20-year career in management consulting to write full time. For a moment, I wish the conversation hadn’t taken this turn — not because I’m ashamed of my diagnosis — but because I never know how the information that I have cancer will be received. It can feel like I’ve just detonated a bomb in the middle of some pleasant small talk. As I brace for the impact, I wait to see how it lands. From having these conversations for the last two years, I do know it will likely go one of two ways illustrating we, collectively, only have two cancer paradigms.
The first paradigm is that cancer is a death sentence
In a conversation with someone who sees cancer through this lens, I will hear the details of a close friend, sister or cousin who died within months of diagnosis. The face I look back reveals that they now believe they are talking to the walking dead. Apologies will be offered that I have to suffer through this and reassurances about the beauty of hospice given. Unfortunately, this cancer experience is still common. Roughly 1,700 people die from cancer each day in the United States.1 And most people, including me, know someone whose life it took too soon.
The second paradigm is the victorious battle over cancer
In this conversation, a story will be told about an aunt, a neighbor or co-worker who waged a valiant and challenging war against cancer but ultimately won. It often includes the detail that you’d never even know she had cancer. This conversation typically ends in a pep talk of sorts. Encouraging me that if I, too, fight hard enough I can beat it and put this unfortunate period behind me.
Neither of these two paradigms captures my experience. I have a slow growing but incurable form of lymphoma. It currently can’t be “beat” but will likely be managed with multiple treatments in my lifetime.
Introducing a third paradigm
It’s at this point in the conversation that I introduce a third paradigm – someone living a vibrant, full life while also slowly growing malignant cells. My type of lymphoma – along with other some blood cancers and prostate cancer — can require no treatment at times. It instead includes active surveillance also known as “watching and waiting.” I have blown more than a few minds by telling folks that not only do I have cancer, but it’s growing right now, and I’m doing nothing but watching it.
These two limited cancer paradigms don’t reflect the innovations in cancer research and treatment that have resulted in people living for years while also hosting cancer cells. These stories are more common and challenge us to accept cancer as a chronic disease. There may not be a cure, but it also may not be fatal.
I hope that after I have this conversation, the person leaves me with a new cancer paradigm — one that includes someone living their one precious life to the fullest while also having cancer.
Do you worry about relapse?