I talked with a breast cancer survivor yesterday who is recovering from a mastectomy she endured just a few days ago. We talked on the phone about her disease, my disease, our treatment paths, diet, exercise, and more. In the midst of all of this, my new friend asked: “How do you know when you are cancer-free?”
Good question. Just not an easy one to answer.
There is no surefire method for determining whether or not cancer lives in one’s body. There are blood tests, physical exams, and screening tools. But there is no comprehensive body scan—well, there might be but it’s not one I can afford or care to have. Just imagine all the possible problems such a test might turn up. Any abnormality of unknown origin that pops up would surely cause worry, and more tests, and perhaps no concrete diagnoses. This approach is just not good for the psyche.
In addition to my specific screening protocol—mammogram, ultrasound, and MRI—my team of doctors screen for symptoms. This means they wait for me to complain about something. If I experience persistent headaches, a head scan may be in order. Shortness of breath? I’ll probably get a chest X-ray from an X-ray tech soon. A new lump? Perhaps a biopsy will follow. None of these tests will be done without reason, though. Only if they are warranted will they come into play.
Right now, at this very moment, I don’t know if I am cancer-free. There could be cancer in my body and I just don’t know about it. There may be nothing at all invading my cells. I don’t know this either. None of us is always privy to cancer’s presence, not even those who’ve never had the disease. It’s no different for me, because I’ve had cancer. I still don’t know. And that’s OK. I think about it this way: I have survived breast cancer for three years which tells me cancer has not been an issue for me for a good long time. Let’s call it “symptom-free.” I’m symptom-free. And that’s good enough for me.