Most cancer survivors remember where they were when they got their diagnosis, a day seared into their memories like Pearl Harbor for a certain generation, or JFK’s assassination, or 9/11.
The day you finish treatment is a more welcome remembrance. My five-year anniversary, on January 31, is fast approaching. My doctors at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston have told me that at five years “out,” you are no more likely than the general population to get leukemia.
I can still hear the words of my doctor, Daniel J. DeAngelo, at my intake for treatment for AML, or acute myleoid leukemia: “After two years you can break out the champagne, but only after five years can you use the word ‘cured.’”
But do I want to use it? No. I’m afraid it will jinx me.
Five-year survival rates vary according to the type cancer. Yet whether it is medically relevant or not, five years is an important marker for many survivors. You can tell that by scrolling through Internet pages, where many entries come up under the search “five-year cancer anniversary.”
I have read about people throwing big parties to celebrate their five-year, or doing something out-of-the-ordinary like climbing a mountain or taking a big trip to celebrate the date.
One survivor held what was called a “gratitude gathering.”
"In lieu of gifts, I asked each woman to bring a bag of wrapped hard candies and I delivered a huge basket of them all to my chemo ward where the nurses give them to the patients who get parched while in chemo," New York journalist Bethany Kandel told ABC News. "In this way, my gratitude over my clean bill of health and five-year milestone turned into a way for my friends to give back as well.”
A friend of mine, who is a breast cancer survivor, told me that at five years, she stayed under the radar. At 10 years, she ducked further — like me not wanting to display any hubris that might get you shot down.
In the language of bone marrow transplants, each anniversary marks another birthday. That’s because when you get new stem cells after chemotherapy wipes out your cancer, you re-enter the world with the immune system of a newborn baby.
I already once reached the two-year birthday after my first bone marrow transplant. I observed it by having coffee with friends. But I never made it to five, relapsing after 3½ years. So January 31 is a big date for me.
My daughter suggested (jokingly) that because I will be five years old, I should throw a kid-style party with birthday cake and hats. But I think instead I will go out to dinner with whichever of my three children is around. Maybe we’ll get dessert afterwards.
But no party whistles, please.
© 2014 NewsmaxHealth. All rights reserved.