National Cancer Survivors Day

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Recognizing and Celebrating Milestones


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Many people mark milestones in their cancer treatment plan and survivorship in a variety of ways. For many people, the one-year and five-year cancer-free milestones are very meaningful. Other milestones and anniversary dates can be marked as well, such as the end of chemotherapy or radiation therapy, the date of your cancer diagnosis, the anniversary of surgery to treat your cancer, or after each follow-up visit.

Why Recognize Milestones?
For most survivors and family members, cancer is a life-changing event. Recognizing milestones can help survivors put their cancer experience into perspective, and recognize the changes in their lives, both good and bad.

However, these dates may cause a variety of unexpected emotions; relief and joy are common feelings, but so are fear and worry of a possible cancer recurrence. Taking time to recognize anniversary dates and prepare yourself for them can help you sort through these emotions and reflect on your experience. Your healthcare team can help, even if your treatment was many years ago.

Marking milestones can also be an opportunity to celebrate your hard work, successful completion of treatment, and the fact that you are a cancer survivor.

Ways to Recognize Milestones
You can find a way to recognize important milestones that feel comfortable and reflect your personality, values, and taste. The way you choose to recognize milestones depends on many personal factors, including the memories you have of your treatment. If you recently finished treatment, you may still be adjusting to the idea of cancer survivorship and may not be ready for a big gathering or a celebration. If your treatment was long and difficult, these memories may be something you prefer to reflect on, but not necessarily celebrate. On the other hand, a big celebration with family and friends might be just what you want. The following ideas are some ways to recognize important milestones:

Celebrating your milestones doesn’t have to involve elaborate planning or expensive activities.

◊ Take time to reflect.
Plan a quiet time to think about your cancer experience and reflect on the changes in your life. Some people prefer to reflect privately (think, pray, or meditate), while others decide to share thoughts with a family member or friend. Writing in a journal is another way to reflect on your experiences. You can record your thoughts and feelings as you approach a milestone, or read over previous journal entries and think about how far you’ve come.

◊ Plan a special event.
You may decide to plan something special, like a hot air balloon ride or that trip to Alaska you’ve always wanted to take. You may want to have a big gathering with your family and friends, or a small dinner at a favorite restaurant. You can do most of the planning yourself, or ask others to help with the organizing.

◊ Donate or volunteer.
Many cancer survivors find that donating or volunteering helps give positive meaning to their cancer experience. Some survivors choose to donate money to a cancer charity, the center they were treated at, or another organization. Others donate items such as wigs or prosthetic devices to a local hospital or a national organization. As a cancer survivor, you have valuable firsthand information on coping with cancer that can help others. Consider volunteering at a cancer hotline or support organization, or becoming involved in cancer fundraising or advocacy.

◊ Join an established celebration.
Some survivors begin a new tradition by participating in established events, such as walks or races hosted by patient advocacy groups and cancer organizations. Some hospitals and treatment centers hold reunions and annual celebrations for cancer survivors. Communities worldwide celebrate National Cancer Survivors Day®, which is the first Sunday in June.

◊ Do something you enjoy.
Celebrating your milestones doesn’t have to involve elaborate planning or expensive activities. Celebrating can just be taking time to do something you enjoy, such as taking a walk in the woods, going to the movies with a friend, or getting a massage. Any activity, no matter how small, can be a celebration if it brings you pleasure.

There Is No “Right Way” to Celebrate
Everyone has heard stories of cancer survivors who run marathons or raise thousands of dollars to celebrate milestones. While these survivors certainly deserve to be recognized, it can be easy to feel that your own celebrations do not measure up. Each person’s experience with cancer is different, and the feelings and emotions you have about your cancer milestones are unique.

And remember that, over time, your own feelings about celebrating your milestones may change – a common transition. The celebration that seems terrific for the first anniversary may not be as appealing to you five years later. It is important to remember that needs and circumstances change and that it takes time to recover a sense of normalcy after being affected by a serious illness.

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Reprinted with permission from © 2010 American Society of Clinical Oncology. All rights reserved.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2010.