Statistics and Survivors

When you leave your doctor's office after finding out you have stage 3 colon cancer, the first logical thing you do is Google "Stage 3 Colon Cancer Survivability." When we think of cancer, we think of our own mortality. It's only natural and I can assure you every person who has heard those words has had those thoughts.

In my case, you'll find sites that say anything from 50% to 64% survivability in the first 5 years. When it comes to your life, that's scary. And knowing I was on the far right end of the stage 3 spectrum with 14 positive lymph nodes, I knew I was probably closer to the 50th percentile. So I had a 50% chance of being alive in 5 years? It was enough to keep me nauseated for days. But as goes most things in life, you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, or a percentage just because you read it.

5 years is a big deal for cancer survivors. If you can make it 2 years with no evidence of disease (NED) you have an 80% chance of no recurrence. If you can make it 5 years with no evidence of disease, you have a 99% chance of no recurrence. That's HUGE. Next time you hear a cancer survivor say they've made it to 5 years, you can understand the HUGE load that has been lifted off their shoulders.

I may have barely passed Statistics and Qualitative and Quantitative Research Methodology my senior year, but I still remember what it takes to get some good clean numbers, and as I would find out, these stats I was reading online from very reliable sources didn't tell the whole story. I'm going to pull rank and use my admirable and useful Sociology degree and declare them not even accurate.

Now let's put it all in context and use 50% since it makes for easier math for someone who still counts using her fingers.

50% of people diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer will not be above ground 5 years after diagnoses. What that statistic doesn't specify is that those 50% didn't necessarily die of cancer. They just died in general. They died of anything people can die of. They died of old age.  They died of heart attacks. They died in car accidents. They just happened to be dead 5 years after being diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer and therefore fueled those collecting data to produce that percentage.

And we all know by now that colon cancer is not the cancer of the youth. So you have to factor in that a majority or people, a whopping 90%, are being diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer in their later years. Not as healthy, not as strong and possibly dealing with other health conditions limiting their longevity.

See where I'm getting at?

These statistics do come with a disclaimer that is even smaller and more italicized than fine print at the bottom of the page.  But the funny thing is, it's rather hard to read when you're in the midst of the initial 24 hours of perpetual crying following the fearful news. My eyes were practically swollen shut. How am I expected to read fine print?

For now, I don't know what the survivability rates are for people under 50 who are diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer. I'll check with my surgeon next time I see him and get back to you. Something tells me he knows more about colon cancer than my actual oncologist, but I'll keep that to myself.

The moral of the story is this: Don't go home and Google. Ever. Thus saith the Google-a-holic.

In the meantime, I feel like I'm living in this weird cancer purgatory. I had cancer. It was removed from my body, but because I'm currently going through chemo, it's like I have cancer. Again, the chemo I'm doing is called adjunct chemotherapy and is essentially "preventative" in case there are some random cancer cells running lose and looking for a place to grow. I think their next home would be my liver. Nice of them to pick a regenerative organ I do say.

So that alone crushes any chances I have of using the "But I have cancer!" excuse on Kyle to get out of chores like dishes, lawn sculpting and cutting his hair.

I've now switched over to the "But I'm going through chemo!" excuse, and he sees past that too as I continue to obsessively spot clean my floors, eat healthy portions of Jelly Bellies and maintain my feminine mystique while walking normally in heels.

I also cringe when I hear people use the word "survivor" to describe anything I'm doing because I feel like you have to fight hard to survive something. Being a survivor is a big deal. Those are the people who have been to hell and back. I just had a luxury vacation in a hospital, spent four weeks on heavy narcotics with zero responsibility and get to stay in bed and sleep for 2 days every other week. Granted, I feel completely craptastic and nauseated for days and days afterward, but I feel so unworthy to be in the same category of people truly battling cancer. The people with cancer in their body. Don't get me wrong, chemo is rough and I think everyone knows how debilitating nausea can be. But I'm not trying to buy a few extra months or shrink a tumor in hopes of making it easier to operate on. I'm there just in case.

You always have to step back and look at the big picture. The big picture that more often than not we can't even fathom. I laid in bed after my first round and thought there was no way I could do this 11 more times. And here I am almost half way through.

It's like running. For me, the first 1/2 mile always sucks. You're partly warming up and partly trying to get in your grove. Then you just get in the zone and go. I laugh as I type this because it's been weeks since I've even worked out. Granted, they've been some rough weeks, but who am I to talk about doing anything aerobic that requires endurance right now. As anyone who faithfully works out knows, so often it's more a mental challenge than a physical one. And right now neither of those parts of me feel like functioning.

I'm trying to tackle chemo in the same way. Yes, the physical aspects are grueling, but I try and arm my mind with powerful things that are greater than any nausea or fatigue and general feeling of blah or craptasticness. Like running, I know my body can do it, but it's our minds that we must really overcome.

"Only when I die of something else can you carve 'Cancer Survivor' on my tombstone." 

I saw this quote somewhere long before cancer became my reality, but it left such an impression that it's stuck with me. It's true. I don't want to claim my survivor status until I beat cancer to the grave. I don't feel I'm worthy of that club. But I also feel like it's not cancer I'm out to survive right now, it's chemo. That is what you can carve on my grave: "Chemo Survivor."

In the mean time, I'm just girl who's taking a 6 month detour on the road of life. And I have to believe that the path I'm now on as a puny little human is a small part of my big picture. I sit back in faith and know that I will one day see why this part of the journey was necessary on my road to Glory.


Carrie S. said...

Way to put it in perspective. Very good insight, Sarah. (Although, you know we all admire you for chemo surviorship - it's something no one hopes to have to endure).

Unknown said...

No doubt cancer is that thing people fear, and sadly, many people reading this will be directly impacted by it in their lifetime. I think that's what I'm aiming for, to plant the information in their heads so if it's ever a road anyone must cross, they can think back to my experience and know how to better relate to the journey.

Agatha Singer said...

I think that nowadays people are facing an epidemic of cancer fear. We have become a society with cancer phobia. We are indeed more afraid of the disease than the medical evidence says we need to be. The real concern about cancer phobia is that it can lead to over diagnosis and to over treatment, both of which can be dangerous.