• Nicole

How Can I Be "Cancer-Free"?

Updated: Aug 24, 2020

Remission. No evidence of disease. NED. Cancer-free. Cured.

The phrases every cancer patient hopes to hear. But when we do, they become the outcomes we doubt and question.

Somehow, after everything, "cancer-free" just doesn't seem possible. So we wonder...

How can it be? How long is remission? Does no evidence of disease mean cancer-free? Or just that the scans don’t show any cancer? How can I be cured after 5 years if the same cancer can reoccur at 8, 10, 14+ years? Will I ever really be cancer-free?

The hard part is there are no consistent answers to these questions. Some oncologists will never tell a patient they are cancer-free. Even after 20 years. Many use the 5-year rule for a cure. Others stick with the diplomatic no evidence of disease or NED.

After my double mastectomy, I technically became free of cancer. At least the cancer we could see. And even though I started to use the term “cancer-free”, it didn’t feel right because there’s no way to know for sure.

But “remission” didn’t feel right either. It sounded too bleak for my situation. Like I was waiting for the cancer to return rather than moving forward toward the cure my oncologists believe is possible for me.

I’ve struggled with these labels for a year. Trying to define where I stand. Hoping to find a balance that gives me peace of mind but also keeps my beliefs reasonable.

The best I have come up with (with a little help from my therapist) is this: “Today, I am cancer-free.”

Is it true?

Yes, for today. And hopefully for tomorrow. But I know how quickly this status can change.

Ultimately, this is what I choose to believe until someone tells me otherwise.

It’s kind of like the proverbial tree… does it make a noise when it falls in the forest if no one is there to hear it? Do you have cancer if no one says the words?

Some would argue yes. And I can understand why. But for me, cancer is a disease of the body and mind. It needs to invade both before I’ll let go of my cancer-free hope.

I like to think of it like this: Before I was diagnosed, I lived 4-6 months with cancer inside my body, but my mind didn’t know. I functioned as a cancer-free person. It only became real when I heard, “You have cancer.”

Of course I’ll never return to my pre-cancer self. I know too much. And yet, at the same time, I know so little.

This awareness has taught me not to doubt my present or assume my future, but to draw power from my knowledge in the moment and enjoy the bliss of my ignorance.

So with that in mind, today, I am cancer-free. We’ll just have to see what tomorrow brings.

I stopped to take this photo (actually, I made my husband turn the car around) on my way to Mayo Clinic for my double mastectomy. It just felt right... the bright sunflowers against the dark storm clouds perfectly depicted the hope and fear I was internally balancing. One year later, it feels right to use this photo as I share my thoughts on becoming cancer-free.


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