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A "Typical Cancer Experience, What's That?

A “Typical” Cancer Diagnosis, What’s That?

I read somewhere (unfortunately, I threw out the magazine where I read this in one of my rare “cleaning out” moments of the New Year) that a typical cancer diagnosis eats up about a year of a person’s life by the time all is said and done.

Really? Is that all?

What is a typical cancer diagnosis or experience anyway?

I’m not sure what typical means exactly. In this particular case, I imagine it refers to the period of time beginning at initial diagnosis and ending upon completion of initial treatment(s).

If you happen to be one of the unlucky, atypical persons living with metastatic breast cancer, forget about it. You will never be typical again.

My case is not classified as typical either, so I’m not sure where that leaves me…

My oncologist often reminds me (or I should say, used to remind me as he has since quit on me) of this when we discuss BRCA stuff. In fact at my last appointment when we were discussing my BRCA status, he said to me, “Do you realize just how rare your case really is?”

If we weren’t discussing such serious topics like BRCA and cancer, being called rare might be a good thing.

In this case, not so much.

BRCA gene mutations account for roughly 10% of breast cancer cases, and some say it’s even less than this.

Regardless of the statistic, I don’t believe anyone’s cancer experience is typical.

Also, I don’t think cancer “eats” up a year. It steals it. And it steals way more than a year, even if you’re typical

Time is quite literally taken from you. It was supposed to be your time. Your life. But somewhere in there, cancer sneaks in like a thief in the night and takes bits and pieces of your former life and self. And sometimes it seems like it’s all a bit of a crap shoot just how much time and how much of your life cancer gets to take from you.

You often wonder if you “caught the culprit” early enough or have put it in its place for good. You spend way more than a year diagnosing, treating, recovering, picking up the pieces, adjusting and then looking over your shoulder more frequently than you’d like to admit.

You never really know if and when the “theft” is completely over. You spend at least moments of the rest of your life on guard watching and waiting for the “cancer criminal” who may or may not show up on your doorstep again.

Cancer is a thief

You remain on guard wondering if you have done all the “right” things to keep the “thief” away for good.

You try to take better care of yourself by eating right and exercising. You go to appointments and have scans and tests when called for. You diligently try to take the drugs you are told will help in this mission, despite their nasty side effects. You try not to worry or complain too much to your family about every little ache and pain you get. You try to make adjustments to living in a body that sometimes doesn’t feel like yours at all. You try to just sleep at night and not think. You try really hard to not get labeled as paranoid or just down right annoying.

Yes, you learn to live again, but you remain on guard forever.

You wonder if you will be one of the lucky ones and just be typical.

You hope and pray you will be and feel guilty when others are not.

A typical cancer diagnosis eats up a year of a person’s life.

Hmm. If only…

How do you react to the phrase, a typical cancer diagnosis?

What has the cancer thief stolen from you?

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A Typical Cancer Diagnosis, What's that?


42 thoughts to “A “Typical” Cancer Diagnosis, What’s That?”

  1. It is funny that you posted about this because I have been working up a post of my own about all the things that cancer has stolen from me. I really would like people to know that even though I may be “getting better” as far as scans etc go, I still battle daily with all of the things cancer has taken from me in the short two-ish years I have been diagnosed.
    Very timely post Nancy and I for one LOVE that you posed this question to the world.

    1. Laura, I completely understand. Your life has been drastically altered and I’m sorry about that. I hope things are going better. I’m looking forward to that post. Thank you so much for commenting and “getting it.”

  2. Nancy – “You spend way more than a year diagnosing, treating, recovering, picking up the pieces, adjusting and then looking over your shoulder more frequently than you’d like to admit….You remain on guard forever.” This speaks volumes to me, as I am struggling through this current “cancer fugue.” What has cancer taken from me? These last few weeks, my stamina – physical, psychological and emotional. On a macro level, I find it incredibly sad that “typical” and “cancer” are becoming phrase-mates, in as much as cancer seems to becoming more prevalent in our evolving society. On the other hand, as I have been reminded by many sage cancer journeyers over the last week, there is nothing “typical” in each of own unique cancer-experiences. To paraphrase Renn, we share a common waterway, but each of us is rowing alone.

    1. TC, I know what you mean. I’m sorry you’ve been struggling so much of late. You make a good point. Cancer and typical should not even be phrase mates because there is nothing at all typical about cancer, period. I wish I had saved that article, so I could see where exactly it came from or who said it. Next time I must be more careful. I love that comment of Renn’s. It fits perfectly doesn’t it? Thanks so much for commenting. They seem to be working again…

  3. Perfect post, Nancy. There’s nothing typical about it and as we always say, cancer never leaves us completely, even if treatment and signs of disease end. As my 4-month oncology check approaches, I’m reminded again. Cancer has stolen not only time, but forever peace of mind.

    1. Stacey, You know, Stacey, I think that’s perhaps one of the main “things” cancer takes – our peace of mind. You’re exactly right about that. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and good luck at your appointment. I’ve got one fast approaching too.

  4. Cancer is “just” a word until your name or that of a loved one is attached to the diagnosis. Then it becomes deeply personal. It impacts your body, your thinking, your past and future. Nothing is ever the same in many ways.

    There’s no such thing as a typical cancer diagnosis, and I don’t know of any oncologists who would use that phrase. Once I tried to cajole my oncologist into helping me minimize my diagnosis by saying, “well, if I had to get cancer, this is a good one, right?”

    He looked at me and thought for a minute. “There are no good cancers,” he said. I never forgot that.

    — jms

    1. Jody, That’s an interesting observation you make there about when we “stand up and take notice.” You’re probably right. And yes, nothing is ever the same in many ways after a diagnosis. “At least you got the good cancer,” is a comment I’ve heard and I find it to be pretty ridiculous. Your oncologist was exactly right. A “good cancer” does not exist.

  5. Cancer has stolen from me a wonderful son who we cherished for 21 years and rallied and care for during his cancer treatment for another 2 years. We had 21 blissful years, 2 years of paralyzing fear and the rest of our lives to greave. Need I say more as to what cancer has stolen from us. It was the enemy we could not protect our son from because we didn’t see it coming.

    1. Debbie, No, there is certainly no need to say more, Debbie. What cancer has taken from you and your family is heartbreaking. I’m so sorry for your loss. We try and try to protect our kids from stuff, but when serious illness barges in, we are powerless in many ways. Thanks so much for sharing about your son. Again, I’m sorry. You understand all too well.

  6. I’m about two weeks off one year with BC, in spite of the fact that yes it has been incredibly difficult for myself and my children, it’s been one year that has given me time to stop and think and feel again. Sure I will always be on guard but my life has changed forever and is so much better now in many ways.

    1. Sheryl, I’m happy to hear you are nearing that first year marker. That’s a big one for sure. I’m glad you have found a way to look at cancer that works for you. Thanks so much for sharing. Hope you are feeling well and strong.

  7. Oh, Nancy…if there is anything ‘typical’ about any cancer, it is that it’s a thief. I sit here today, grappling with this very issue. It’s what has prompted so many of my previous posts, and most recently, my New Year’s post about my non-resolutions, how I still find myself trying to recover all the time I’ve lost to breast cancer & its treatment. And then there’s last week’s adventure of hearing about the cancerous polyp removed during my recent colonoscopy. Even though no further treatment is required, I think just hearing about it took a year off my life in shock value. I’m still getting over it. I like the onc who told jms that “There are no good cancers.” I think too many times, oncs try to soft-pedal ‘early’ cancer. Most of us come to realize that by the time cancer is detectable, there’s nothing ‘early’ about it, it’s been hanging out for a while.

    Debbie, yours is yet another story of exactly how profound a thief cancer is. Too many of us have lost more than mere time to cancer.

    Unfortunately, Nancy, this theme will always be relevant.

    1. Kathi, I understand where you’re coming from. I’ve read those posts. And then on top of that, you’ve had your recent scare. So many times we are led to believe if you just catch it early, everything will be fine. Of course that is hopefully most often the case, but sadly many times it is not. There does often seem to be this tendency to “soft pedal” as you said. Thanks so much for commenting.

  8. Nancy!
    OK.. this is like that sync’ing thing except I have no ovaries…. I did a jokier version of this because yes, I am the court jester of the bloggers….. and YES, it posted today….. and Yes, I think I said something about the time cancer stole from my life…


  9. There is no “typical”. The oncology nurses tell me “everyone’s different” almost every time they ask me how I’ve done since the last cycle of chemo. Sounds like sloppy writing/thinking to me – what they actually should have discussed was “typical treatment (takes about a year)”.

    As for what it’s stolen.. or is stealing.. well, I’m reluctant to write my feelings down right now. I’m deparately hoping there’s a point where it will stop stealing.

    1. Lynne, Sounds like you have some great nurses. I think that’s actually what the writer meant, that typical treatment takes about a year, but they didn’t state it very well. But when treatment ends, it’s not like you are done either. It’s interesting you say you are reluctant to write down your feelings right now. I would suggest doing just that privately in a journal or something. I find journaling to be quite therapeutic and even have a post on it if you’re interested. Thanks so much for commenting. I hope cancer stops “stealing” from you too.

  10. And in re-reading my post….. it wasn’t really about the time stolen but about the time it actually took for my dx and the twists and turns the “journey” takes. FWIW… I hate EVERY single one of these metaphoric words. Journey, battle, new normal, my chemobrain is clogged and really fogged right now…. seriously ill “sister” in hospital….. I can’t focus on a good day. Between Susan (Toddler Plant) and my friend here in a hospital in NY, I’m D O N E….

    THIS is what breast cancer is about to steal. Two mothers who are not yet 40 and 3 children all under 10 from knowing their mother. I’m sad and angry at the same time…… I hope for a miracle but I’m realistic.


    1. Ann Marie, I know what you mean. I’m sad and angry at the same time too. I’m sorry about your other “sister” in the hospital. And Susan, yes, we’re all worried about her. I don’t like all the metaphors either. They’re not really helpful to me, but maybe to some they are. Thanks for your additional thoughts.

  11. Nancy,

    This is an excellent, timely post, and thank you so much for writing it. Oh my gosh, just as so many comments above, there is no “typical” cancer diagnosis and treatment. Period. The physical and psychological damage of this disease are immeasurable.

    Cancer has stolen a lot from me. My friend Faun. My confidence that if I took good care of myself, no serious illness would come (that one was delusional, but there you have it). It has crept into my mind and forever threatens to hijack it. And it affects so many caregivers, family members, friends, etc.

    For me it’s always a balance. I try so hard to keep cancer from rearing its ugly head, but there’s not a single day it doesn’t affect me.

    And Debbie’s loss is beyond heartbreaking.

    1. Beth, I’m so sorry about the dear friend you lost. You know all too well what cancer steals. And you’re right about the physical and emotional damage. Some would say we are being pessimistic, but I say it’s just being honest. And of course, you’re right, it’s all about finding balance. That’s why I picked that as one of my three words to “live by” this year! Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments, Beth.

  12. Ha! Typical? Sounds like the author of that article needed a thesaurus…or a dictionary. I have been unfortunate enough to lose a mother, a grandfather and a childhood best friend to cancer in a nine month time frame. I have other friends who don’t have their ovaries, breasts and lymph nodes. Most of the friends I speak of are under 28 years of age, and the friend that must not have been “typical” passed away at 24. If I was honest about what I “feel” cancer “stole” from me, I would sound selfish, self observed and there may not be enough room in this box 😉 I know so many feel the same way; this is an awful disease.

    Thanks for giving us a platform to vent.


  13. Great discussion. Cancer stinks whether you have a ‘rare’ or ‘typical’ diagnosis. The BRACA discussion only adds to the confusion and angst, frankly. Did everything right and still got cancer? Still do everything right but because you have a mutation of your BRAC1 gene, who knows? In the meantime, writing and sharing is GREAT therapy and I’m glad to have found Nancy’s Point!

    1. Diane, I’m glad you found Nancy’s Point too, Diane! Have you checked out my brca posts? I agree writing and sharing is great therapy. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  14. My take: There is absolutely no ‘typical’ cancer. How could there be? We are all different biochemically, emotionally, etc.

    Cancer steals so much more than a year of our lives. I miss having a body without scars or missing parts. I also miss my energy. Fighting back with nutrition definitely helps…but it’s still hard to go through such a radical shift in lifestyle.

    1. Lisa, Well, your take is “right on.” “Typical” does not exist in “cancerland” or anywhere for that matter. The list of things “taken” is far too long isn’t it? I like the way you put things, radical shift in lifestyle, and on many fronts, I might add. Thanks so much for stopping by and adding to this discussion.

  15. I am right there with you, Nancy. Cancer was a game changer for me. I lost so much. How can it ever be quantified? What good does it do to try. I am a completely different woman. I have a different view of myself. A year? Try “my whole life” and all my expectations. Let’s see I lost my right breast too. Was I supposed to be over that in a year. Oops, oh well.

    U understand that someone just wanted to give a time frame for treatment, but the effects of cancer go WAY beyond treatment.

    The thing that angers me most is that it gives an unrealistic view of what the cancer patient faces. We want to increase awareness not STUNT its growth.

    Thank you for writing this one!!

    1. Sarah, Of course you’re right, what a person loses as a result of a cancer diagnosis can never be quantified can it? I do think “good” comes from voicing things lost or changed however. One needs to acknowledge these things in order to deal with them, in my opinion, as well as to educate others. Many people do have an unrealistic time frame for when “cancer ends.” I know you understand all too well. Thanks for your insightful comments.

  16. You’r post sucked me right in, I felt every word.

    Cancer stole me. I was me pre-cancer and I am me post-cancer. February 6 will be my 9 year cancerversary. I’m so fortunate to have made peace with the post-cancer me somewhere along the way. I can say the emotional backlash alone lasted 2 years? I don’t recall, I was in a tailspin, it could have been more, could have been less. Either way it was a long, slow, walk through hell.

    I hope that brave people like you help to spare others that holding pattern in hell. I don’t think it can be avoided, but you don’t have to stay there and your don’t have to go there alone.

    Thank you isn’t enough.


    1. Amy, Congratulations on your nine year cancerversary! I’ve not heard the term “emotional backlash” used quite in the way you did before. That’s a good way to put it and you’re right, this emotional backlash period is unique for every person. I don’t think you ever completely leave that behind or completely “recover” from it. You just learn to adapt the best you can. Thanks for calling me brave, although I know I am not. Thanks so much for commenting. I hope to “hear” from you again!

  17. For the last couple of days I have been thinking about my diagnosis. It is nearly 3 years since my life was forever changed. The one thing that is certain when you talk about typical, there is nothing typical about cancer. It leaves you breathless it shocks your soul, hurts your heart. You feel an “Indescribable” agony. It’s like that silent scream you want to at the top of your voice but nothing comes out except this deafening silence! The diagnosis holds more significance for me because though I had surgery chemo etc I’m far from over it. I still suffer from severe joint pain, my left hand is losing it’s functionality. How do they come up with numbers like a year? It’s 3 years for me and it just keeps on taking!It’s even worse when you have to take this tireless road by yourself……
    Thanks Nancy
    Love Alli xx

    1. Alli, I understand where you’re coming from. Remember though, you are not by yourself! Not completely anyway. Thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts and feelings so honestly.

  18. A great post indeed. I, too, have some crazy rare BC that morfed into neuro-endocrin cancer…nothing is typical about most intense illnesses let alone cancer. I think I’m looking at way more than a year and as many post, we are on guard and it takes a long time to recover… those that are blessed with recovering, surviving, etc.

    What has been stolen from me? A year of motherhood. Fiat osiers while pregnant, and worsened cancer at my sweet sons 6 month point, I miss a lot. Feel free to read more on my blog of you wish.

    Thank you for sharing your story, this post hits home.
    Be well and may all of our strength endure.

    1. Jen, I’m sorry for all the things cancer has taken from you. There isn’t anything typical about cancer is there? Thanks for reading and commenting. I glad and sad at the same time that this post hits home for you. My best.

  19. Thanks Nancy for this post & your blog which I have just discovered while sitting here wondering how long more does this go on for. Thus far cancer has stolen 7 months of my peace of mind and mood stability and this is a cancer that although it was invasive has an excellent prognosis. So throw in some guilt at feeling crap when others have so much more to deal with – well you gotta get the Irish Catholic heritage in there somehow. But it wasn’t supposed to happen to me – had I trumped these odds on the lottery I’d be laughing my way to early retirement. And I practise gratitude & as you said good eating & exercise but fatigue & mood swings & now a hysteroscopy to examine what lovely SE the Tamox is having dent the professional Mum trying to return to normal image. It’s an inner dent but as I write this it’s reduced me to tears. And maybe thats good coz I haven’t cried yet. Is it typical? What the heck do I know? xx

    1. Cathy, You are most welcome. I’m so glad you found my blog and took a few moments to comment. I’m sorry for all you have been going through. It can all be so overwhelming can’t it? An “inner dent,” I like the way you put that. I’ll have to remember that one. I say go ahead and cry. Sometimes a person just needs to. There isn’t anything typical about cancer. Maybe you will find a few other posts to be helpful. I hope so. Good luck with things and please keep me posted.

  20. I remember the nurse saying to me after I was diagnosed, “it’s going to be a rough year.” We were so surprised. Only a year? Well, heck! We could make it through a year.

    And now here things are three years later and I can’t quite begin to describe how it feels . .. there are good days, good weeks when it seems very far away – and then there comes and ache, or a bump, or a bad scan, and the anxiety returns only worse because now I’m not a cancer newbie.

    One year… I think it’s a nice thing for those newly diagnosed to aspire toward; it gives hope and hope is useful. But there is nothing typical or simple about cancer, and how it really plays out cannot be generalized, except to say there’s a huge emotional ‘kaboom’ along with all the other starling changes.


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