A person who has had a cancer diagnosis is oftentimes called a "cancer survivor." When people talk about "survivorship," they are usually referring to navigating their life experiences and challenges resulting from their cancer diagnosis.
Who is a cancer survivor?
The phrase cancer survivor can mean different things to different people. It is often used as a general term describing someone who has had a diagnosis of cancer. This means that cancer survivorship starts at the time of diagnosis. This definition includes people who have no signs of cancer after finishing treatment, people receiving extended treatment over a longer period of time to control the cancer or reduce risk of its return, and people with advanced cancer.
Not everyone who has or has had cancer uses the word survivor. For some people, this term doesn't feel right. They may feel more comfortable defining themselves as a "person who has had cancer", "a person living with cancer," or another way.
The most important thing is to be able to explain and discuss your medical and emotional needs with your health care team and loved ones. That's why people should find words they are comfortable with to name and navigate their personal changes and challenges that have come from their cancer diagnosis and treatment.
How many cancer survivors are there in the United States?
As early detection methods and cancer treatments have gotten better, the number of people who have had cancer has gone up greatly over the last 50 years in the United States. In 1971, there were 3 million people with cancer. According to the latest figures (2019), there were 16.9 million people living with a history of cancer in the United States.
Other recent statistics on cancer survivorship :
About 67% of cancer survivors have survived 5 or more years after diagnosis.
About 18% of cancer survivors have survived 20 or more years after diagnosis.
64% of survivors are age 65 or older.
It is more likely to survive certain types of cancers than others. This may be because these diseases are more easily detected or treated, and/or more medical advances have been made in new therapies for some cancers. However, any person's individual survival rate depends on several factors. Be sure to talk to your doctor about your prognosis, which is the chance of recovery.
Statistics adapted from the American Cancer Society’s publication, Cancer Treatment & Survivorship Facts & Figures 2019-2021 (PDF), and the National Cancer Institute’s Office of Cancer Survivorship.
Why are there more cancer survivors than ever before?
Screening is used to look for cancer before there are any symptoms or signs, to find it at an earlier and more treatable stage. For instance, mammography for breast cancer, colonoscopy for colorectal cancer, and pap tests for cervical cancer have all improved early detection of cancer, which often leads to better outcomes for patients.
Treatments are also improving. Treatments like surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy are being used in better ways. Newer treatments such as targeted therapy and immunotherapy are extending and saving lives. Advances in palliative care or supportive care are also important. Fewer side effects can keep planned treatments on schedule and help with patients' well-being.
Cancer research is where new advances come from in cancer screening, treatment, and survivorship care. This includes cancer clinical trials, which are research studies involving volunteers. There are clinical trials about different aspects of cancer care, including studies about long-term side effects and other aspects of survivorship care. Learn more about the history of cancer research on a separate website of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
What to expect as a cancer survivor
Most people have the common belief that their life will be "different" after cancer. However, these life changes are also different from person to person. Such changes can be ones you expect or changes that are surprising.
For example, some survivors find that they appreciate life more and find it easier to accept themselves as they are. At the same time, it is also common to feel more anxious after cancer, especially about your health.
Some people find that they have a hard time coping and adjusting after active cancer treatment ends. This transition usually means less frequent contact with their health care team. People may feel uneasy or distressed before a medical checkup, at certain milestones, or more often. This generally gets better over time, but if it doesn't, let your health care team know. For others, treatment never ends, and they deal with cancer and its effects every day. It's important to remember that people experience survivorship in many different ways, and talking with your health care team can help you know what to expect and manage changes.
Common experiences amongst cancer survivors include:
Feeling relief and joy when cancer treatment is over and wanting to recognize that milestone
Experiencing positive personal change and growth
Having survivor's guilt
Interest in changing eating and exercise habits
Interest in "giving back" to the cancer community
Changes in dynamics of your relationship or family
Experiencing a period of transition in returning to work
How could my relationships change during my survivorship?
Some survivors’ needs may change over time and relationships may shift. For example:
Some friends may become closer, while others keep themselves at a distance
Families can become overprotective or it may feel like you need more support from your family
Relationship problems from before the cancer diagnosis can surface again
It may help to remember that people around you have been affected by the cancer experience, too. You and your loved ones may not even be aware of some of these changes and it can take time to adjust. Some people use the word "co-survivors" to refer to the family and friends who care for a loved one with cancer.
If you are having a hard time with a relationship, try to work through these changes with that person or group of people, and get the support you need. This may need the help of a therapist, counselor, or other trained professional. Continue to have open and ongoing communication with your family and friends.
How could work change after cancer?
Going back to a regular work schedule is a way to get back to a normal routine and lifestyle. Most people need their job, especially if it provides health insurance.
Some people with cancer continue to work during treatment. Other people take time off during treatment and return to work when treatment ends. For some people, they are unable to return to work due to the effects of cancer or its treatment.
In the same way that your relationships with family and friends may have changed, you may find that your relationship with work and your colleagues is different. Your coworkers may want to help or they may be unsure of what to say. Some people experience workplace discrimination after cancer treatment.
When you are returning to work after cancer, keep in mind that:
When and how you share your diagnosis is a personal choice.
If you do choose to talk about your experience with cancer, what you decide to share with others is completely up to you.
Coworkers might ask you about your experience. Decide in advance how you want to answer their questions. You may want to use their questions as an opportunity to inform and educate others about cancer.
There are resources that can help you when you return to work or if you experience discrimination.
How can I find help in navigating my survivorship?
Talking with your health care team is a good place to start. If your cancer treatment is complete, it is helpful to ask your doctor for a summary called a "survivorship care plan" that outlines the follow-up care recommended for you. Many people feel reassured to know the next steps in their medical care. This can give you a sense of control during a transitional period. This also helps you understand who will provide different medical services in the future and how often, including the role of your primary care physician. Some medical centers have specific survivorship care clinics to provide long-term care for survivors, including cancer rehabilitation services.
There are also many groups and resources for people diagnosed with cancer, including online and in person. Ask your health care team for survivorship resources in your community. You may want to find a support group, seek the help of a therapist or social worker, or learn more about becoming an advocate for other patients.