Celebrating a Cancerversary: Reflecting on hard-earned wisdom

Heather Jose photo.

Heather Jose

December 17, 1998

This is my 15th Cancerversary. This may be the first time you’ve heard the term. It doesn’t have its own Wikipedia page—yet. Google Trends says the term doesn’t have enough history to track—yet. But lots of cards, buttons, shirts and graphics are showing up online made by people proudly celebrating the anniversaries of their cancer diagnoses.

I’m celebrating by counting my blessings—my hard-earned wisdom about life that I have accumulated over these 15 long years. My husband and I have different feelings about acknowledging the day. Each year, he asks: “Why would you celebrate that? It was the worst day of my life.”

While I agree with that, it feels like too big of an event to just let pass. That day changed everything. I view it more as a day of reflection. I want to think about all of the things I have been able to enjoy since that day, to never forget what it feels like to be without hope, and to move forward with purpose, knowing that days on earth are in no way guaranteed.

Cancerversary graphics and cards online

Many graphics for this observance are popping up online, from cards and buttons to shirts and other mementos.

I have lived with cancer for more than a third of my life now. I am sure I have forgotten many things about how I lived without knowing it. It has given me a different way of evaluating things. Here are some of my reflections. If you’re marking such a date, each year, what are yours? (Please, comment below or share this with friends via Facebook or email or by printing this on paper via the button below.)


I have learned to say no. Now, I think about whether a new task or job is worth the energy and stress it requires—before I tackle the project. I consider the toll it would take on myself and my family and whether or not it will bring joy or fulfillment in some way.

I have realized through the years that almost everyone has a “cancer”—or major burden—in life. This “cancer” may not have come with the warning to “get your affairs in order,” but just the same it was a catalyst to change. Some people heed the warning to change and some don’t. You can’t do it for them.

Sometimes the only way to get through something is to put your head down and do the work required. There isn’t a free pass around going through treatment. It isn’t pleasant at times—but nothing lasts forever.

Every person I have ever met who has had cancer has some level of fear of recurrence. We are the ones who immediately think—”It’s cancer!”—with any ache or pain. This fear can be managed. For me, the anticipation of what could be wrong is far worse than finding out the real source of the ache or pain. I manage the fear of recurrence by staying on top of changes in my body, talking them over with my husband, or going to the doctor when a symptom won’t go away.

There really are seasons in life. Find the good in each of them. When my season was treatment I viewed my life with amazing clarity. Sometimes, my season is a time to provide for my family and I learn to juggle in that season with a sense of real accomplishment. I face different demands, different priorities and different joys in each phase of life. I need to cherish the blessings in each one.

Attitude matters. All of the time. I am not a naturally bubbly person, but I have learned to embrace positivity for the good of my mind and body. I strive to view everything for the good that is in it.

Guilt is counterproductive as a constant companion. For example, one of my goals is to eat food the nourishes my body. However, I don’t always do that. In fact, just last night we had fondue, which is definitely not healthy. I am not going to beat myself up over that choice and do more damage through guilt. Instead I enjoyed it all and I am going to start out healthy today and go forward.

Look for joy. Spend time with people you love. Keep in touch with old friends. One of my friends has decided to connect with me every Thursday in some way. It may be a short text or a long Facebook message. Regardless I have found myself looking forward to it and I have decided to promote this idea myself. Now, I’ve begun a monthly “check in” with another friend because of this.

Do little things that bring you happiness. I have mentioned before that I love to have coffee from a real mug as opposed to a travel mug. It is a small thing, but it makes me happy.

Look for opportunities to connect with those around you; don’t be too busy to do something that would enrich your life. We have a hot tub on our deck and my family loves to use it. I don’t love the 10 steps outside to get in and out of it, but to share that time with the four of us, disconnected from the world and sharing our lives—those 10 chilly steps are worth it! Everytime.

Stay in the moment. We often spend all of our time anticipating something and then forget to enjoy it when it actually happens.

If you haven’t read my book, Every Day We are Killing Cancer, it will take you on my journey through cancer. I would love to share it with you. Have you dealt with cancer? Care to share the date of your Cancerversary and something you have learned in the comments below?

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  1. Elaine Greenberg says

    Heather the word “cancerversary” is used among those who have experienced the diagnosis of cancer. I am celebrating my 14th cancerversary on Jan. 10 of ovarian cancer. If you google me, or look through “Read The Spirit ” archives you will read some of the wonderful things David has written about my journey–and how I used my music as a healing tool (I am a professional singer). I celebrate big time–I send out a monstrous mailing to those who started with me in my “prayer squad” 14 years ago, and those who have joined more recently. I thank them for their prayers and support. My husband and I go out for a very special dinner and we buy me something that will remind me of the fact of how very lucky I am to have survived this long with the deadliest of gynecological cancers–ovarian. I am the Midwest Regional Coordinator for a program called Survivors Teaching Students. This is a national organization that is sponsored by the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance. (www.ovariancancer.org). I am in charge of the program in five states. The program involves four survivors and/or a caregiver who tell their stories to med students, nursing students, P.A. students, N.P students, P.T. students—well you get the idea. We speak at all the major medical schools educating future medical professionals about the symptoms and risk factors of the disease. The idea is to educate NOT criticize the medical community about ovarian cancer. It is very successful. My husband and I also have a not for profit company Living For Music Inc. that sponsors an annual cancer benefit jazz concert in the Detroit area. Detroit is home to some of the best jazz musicians. The money we raise goes to purchase wonderful items (many of them made by MI. artists) and the items are put into beautiful bright bags that we distribute to chemo patients. I give the bags to the patients as I tell them I am a long time survivor, therefore giving them inspiration and we also do a little bit of music together. Right now my dining room resembles an assembly line as we prepare to give 60 bags to three different cancer centers after the first of the year.
    So. yes, Heather, I know only too well the word “cancerversary” and I celebrate it big time–I am here and alive another year. Congratulations on your 15 year years as a survivor—-and celebrate it big time.
    Elaine Greenberg

  2. suZy farbman says

    Best wishes to Heather and to Elaine. You are both troopers! And thanks for the insights, to both of you. a lot of wisdom here.