On the cancer badness spectrum, there is a sweet spot where you can really own the title survivor. I like to give my canine cancer patients bandanas that say “Cancer Survivor” because it’s cute and it makes their owners happy during a bad time.
I put the canine survivor bandana on sometimes when we have a case with a very poor prognosis. It is often received with a look from one of my students that says, “Come on Boston, who are you trying to kid?”, but the way I see it, you are a survivor until you are not. There are times when I feel unsure that my thyroid cancer is worthy of the status of survivor because my prognosis is so good and I am doing great. But for some reason, this title matters to me.
My intern’s brother-in-law was recently diagnosed with a thyroid mass. I sent her all of the information that I could to try to help him navigate the experience. When I first found a fast-growing mass in my neck that I thought was cancer, the most frustrating part of it all was to have to sweat it out while multiple doctors told me that it probably wasn’t cancer. It was crazy-making. When I talked to my intern about my experience, she said, “But you just had a benign thyroid adenoma, right?” And for some reason, I had an overwhelming need to correct her “No, it was a carcinoma. I had thyroid cancer.” Why is it so important to make this distinction? Why do I need people to know that I am a survivor?
When someone is going through treatment, there are usually some signs to alert you to cancer; but as the hair grows back and the scars and the trauma fade, it gets harder and harder to identify the survivors. A lot of my canine cancer survivor patients, however, have three legs (and their bandanas of course), so they are bit easier to pick out of a crowd. Maybe human cancer survivors could all get matching tattoos or rings? Maybe if people knew that I was a cancer survivor they would stop asking me if/when I am going to have kids. They might assume that I didn’t have children because of the cancer (not true) and would stop being so judge-y about my barren state. Everyone is nice to cancer survivors. People also inherently like Canadians and veterinarians, and I am a Canadian veterinarian cancer survivor, so everyone would be nice to me all the time if I could just find a way to let them know. Maybe we could get cancer survivor discounts too? I’m just saying that cheaper movie tickets would be a bonus of survivorship that I could really get behind.
This past week, I was in a consultation with an adult couple and their dog with a large sarcoma on her hip. The dog’s grandma was in the room with us, sitting on a chair between the couple. Granny was essentially inert for the entire discussion of the plan for their dog. She looked like she was sleeping with her eyes open while we talked about the staging CT scan and the potential for surgical excision. The male owner told me that he was having a hard time with all of this because he was a cancer survivor, to which I replied, “So am I.” He wasn’t expecting it. He was a testicular cancer survivor. I am glad that he survived and even more glad that he did not choose to show me his scar. This group cancer announcement roused something in Granny. Out of nowhere, she started to bawl hysterically. She was inconsolable. Between sobs, she kept saying, “Cancer! So . . . much . . . CANCER!!” Her son explained that her husband had died of cancer. Now she was in a room with the dog with cancer, owned by her son with cancer, being treated by a vet with cancer. It was too much.
Somewhere in Granny’s grief and exasperation about cancer, I realized why being a survivor is important, and why I need people to know that it wasn’t just a benign lump on my neck that I am telling them about. I instantly connect with other cancer survivors because we are all veterans of the war on cancer. Three of us in that room — the dog, my client, and myself — will all survive our cancers. We need to remind people that even though cancer is all around us, and it’s devastating sometimes, some of us will survive it. National Cancer Survivors day matters because we need you to know that we are still here.
What happens when a veterinary surgical oncologist (laymen’s term: cancer surgery doctor) thinks she has cancer herself? Enter Sarah Boston: a vet who suspects a suspicious growth in her neck is thyroid cancer. From the moment she uses her husband’s portable ultrasound machine to investigate her lump — he’s a vet, too — it’s clear this will not be your typical cancer memoir.
Dr. Sarah Boston is an associate professor of surgical oncology, department of small animal clinical sciences, at the University of Florida. She has practiced veterinary medicine in various parts of Canada, the U.S, and New Zealand. She lives in Gainesville, Florida, with her husband, and their dog Rumble and cat Romeow.