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Time for a New Cancer Paradigm

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.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  1. Facts & Figures 2018: Rate of Deaths From Cancer Continues Decline. American Cancer Society. Available at


  • janie
    2 years ago

    My experience was a little different. I had many different people tell me with a straight face as cure that they just were sure would work. Charcoal baths, salt water injections, peroxide, and every Mexican clinic were among the many answers to my condition. I even had some get mad at me like I didn’t car because I wouldn’t follow them instead of my doctor. Well, I’m still here, thanks to modern medicine.

  • Ronni Gordon moderator
    2 years ago

    I know what you mean about those first two paradigms. The first reminds me of being pregnant and people having to tell me horror stories. The second brings to mind people saying, “Don’t you just appreciate every day so much more?” I think that state of mind is hard to maintain, so I tell them I have MOMENTS when I appreciate something more, but basically I am still the same old me, grumpy at times, which is sort of a victory in itself.

  • BenMo
    2 years ago

    Hi Terrilyn,

    Thoughtful piece. I found it via a tweet from Lympho Bob. Mind if I ask, what made you decide to change careers after your diagnosis? I was on watch-and-wait for 4 years after my diagnosis, and I was surprised how little had changed for me until I actually needed treatment.

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