From male breast cancer patient to survivor: Life after radiation treatment

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Oliver Bogler survivors Week post (2) CW.JPGIt's been 259 days since my male breast cancer diagnosis. Since then, I've undergone 15 chemotherapy infusions, 35 doses of Zofran, 1.2 liters of drained fluid, 30 radiation treatments, dozens of clinic visits and countless needle sticks.

On my last radiation treatment, I celebrated by ringing the end of treatment bell, an MD Anderson tradition that allows patients to mark the end of a treatment phase.

I rang the bell with Irene, my wife and fellow breast cancer survivor, by my side. Also there were members of the great team that has been delivering my radiation therapy over the past six weeks and my friends from Riders for the Cure motorcycle club. To me, that's the best finish imaginable.

So how did it feel? Mostly, I was relieved at having successfully completed active treatment, with its physical and emotional challenges, not to mention the demands of fitting it into a busy work and family life.

It's good to be done, and to get a three-month break before my next clinic visit. It's good to have beaten the disease and to have gained what's hopefully years of breathing room.

Entering a new phase: Cancer survivorship
I now begin a different phase of being a cancer patient, or perhaps now a cancer survivor. Emotionally, that's not so simple because survivorship also has its challenges.

By coincidence, I finished my active treatment mid-way through the week that marks cancer survivorship at MD Anderson. All week long, MD Anderson was hosting events celebrating cancer survivors.

What it means to be a cancer survivor

Today, you're encouraged to call yourself a survivor the day of your cancer diagnosis. That didn't really feel right to me.

I hadn't survived anything the day of my diagnosis. There were more questions than answers, so I didn't know I would survive.

Now, nearly nine months later, I've survived and I have a clearer picture of where I stand. Looking at the currently available data, the five-year survival rate for people -- alright, women -- with my disease is more than 80%. So, I am now more comfortable with calling myself a survivor.

For those of us who get cancer at a relatively young age, the fact that you have an 80% chance to live five years isn't as comforting as it might seem.

I don't know what my future holds, though I haven't lost all faith in a longer term future.

Of course, I recognize that all life shares this uncertainty. Perhaps a good definition of a cancer survivor is someone who is more aware of their mortality than others.

Struggling with the transition from active cancer patient to survivor
That points to the mixed feelings I am experiencing now, as I transition from being an active cancer patient to being a cancer survivor.

While you're undergoing cancer treatment, you're actively fighting the disease. You are fully engaged and feel satisfied that you're doing all you can. You're focused on making it to that goal line, that finishing bell.

Once you cross and have caught your breath, you could begin to think that you're waiting for the cancer to come back. So another definition of being a cancer survivor is someone who remains engaged in the fight against cancer.

Moving forward after cancer

In a way, I am lucky - I get to take a magic little pill called tamoxifen every day. It suppresses my cancer, which means  for the next five-plus years, I'll get a little emotional benefit of continuing the fight.

But even if you aren't getting this kind of long-term therapy, you can remain engaged: you can take good care of yourself, both physically and emotionally.

You can be a member of the cancer survivor community by advocating for cancer causes or by supporting others fighting cancer. You can remain informed, support research and be counted.
For me, the core of cancer survivorship is this: the realization cancer changes most areas of your life, including your fundamental outlook.

Being a skilled cancer survivor means leveraging the challenges, the misery and fear of it all into energy that allows you to move forward, to be there for your loved ones and perhaps make a difference.

Oliver Bogler, Ph.D., is senior vice president of Academic Affairs and professor of neurosurgery research at MD Anderson. He was diagnosed with male breast cancer in Sept. 2012. Five years earlier, his wife, Irene Newsham, Ph.D., was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Read more blog posts by Oliver Bogler, Ph.D.

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