While we’re waiting for a cure, life goes on

Cancer survivor and seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong announced this week that he is taking up professional cycling again in a crusade to raise awareness of the burden of cancer globally, particularly in countries where citizens suffer in silence because cancer isn’t part of the national conversation the way it is in the States. He notes that cancer kills 8 million people worldwide each year — more than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. Armstrong’s announcement comes on the heels of the national Stand Up 2 Cancer telethon and articles in both Time and Newsweek on the status of the war against cancer, all suggesting that new approaches, scientific cooperation, and increased funding will be necessary in order to make gains against cancer, which will claim some 565,000 American lives this year.

Meanwhile, more and more people are living with cancer — an estimated 12 million cancer survivors in this country, with another 1.5 million new cancer cases expected to be diagnosed this year. While most of us can’t hope to win an international race, how we live with cancer – the ability to create and achieve goals – matters greatly.

And here is where we can take a lesson from survivors like Lance Armstrong and Laura Schwanger, 49, of Philadelphia, a breast cancer survivor who just returned with a bronze medal in Women’s Single Sculls from the Paralympics in Beijing.

An Army veteran diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and confined to a wheelchair since the early 1980s, Schwanger learned she had breast cancer in March 2006.Although doctors told her not to lift anything over five pounds for weeks after her surgery, she had to lift herself in and out of bed. Treatment left her seriously fatigued.

The day after her final radiation treatment, Schwanger joined “Return to Wellness,” a fitness and education program for women who are post treatment for breast cancer at The Wellness Community of Philadelphia. After completing the program, she started rowing with the Philadelphia Rowing Program for the Disabled, and won the U.S. Rowing National Championships seven months later, placing sixth in the world. The top three finishers were half her age. And none of them had battled breast cancer in the previous year.

Today, Schwanger says she’s stronger physically and mentally than she’s ever been.

While we promote research and prevention, we also need a national focus on the quality of life for cancer patients and survivors. We need to acknowledge the social and psychological support systems that allow people like Armstrong and Schwanger to overcome emotional and physical challenges to achieve new dreams.

A 2007 report by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), Cancer Care for the Whole Patient, concluded that good outcomes for cancer patients can only be achieved by adequately addressing patients’ psychosocial health needs in addition to their medical needs.According to the report, these needs range from providing patients with accurate information about their treatment options; assistance in coping with the emotions and stress that accompany cancer diagnosis and treatment; help managing disruptions in work, school, and family life; and logistical support, such as transportation and financial assistance.

The IOM report’s authors recommend creating an integrated model of care, in which health care professionals, caregivers and patients receive community-based cancer support services. Organizations such as The Wellness Community provide such free, professionally-led programs for cancer patients and their families at more than 100 locations worldwide, and on-line at TheWellnessCommunity.org.Many other outstanding organizations provide similar services at no cost to people with cancer.The Wellness Community also collaborates with academic and medical partners to conduct evidence-based research in the field of psychosocial oncology with the goal of improving the quality of life for cancer patients and their caregivers, and has plans to launch a new Cancer Survivorship Research and Training Institute in Philadelphia in 2009.

Given that the demand for cancer support and education services will only continue to grow, it is our hope that any national or global initiatives aimed at combating this disease will include a component that provides cancer patients, their families, and health professionals with the kind of social support services that are so vital to their quality of life and that are necessary to keep dreams like Lance and Laura’s alive.

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  • Pat Killingsworth

    I was diagnosed with cancer in April, 2007. I am just finishing my first book about the experience called “Living with Multiple Myeloma”. In my book I have a chapter called “Lance Armstrong”. Armstrong’s first book was the first book about surviving cancer that I read following my diagnosis and early treatment. My wife (also a cancer survivor) and I have started a blog http://www.helpwithcancer.org. We post everyday with what we hope are helpful articles for cancer survivors, families and friends. Good luck with your blog! Pat

  • becca

    I can’t wait for the AMGEN Tour of California prologue in Sacramento. Cheering Lance on is the least I can do. I found more info about the event, even deals on hotels at http://www.discovergold.org/amgen.