6 Lessons I’ve Learned Over 5 Years of Cancer Survival

Jim Hunter, pictured here with his youngest grandson  I’m not sure of the exact wording, but it was something along these lines: “Your scans look good, and you are five years out. Congratulations! The chances of this cancer recurring are now less than 10 percent.” When my oncologist said that, it put a smile on my face.

First off – less than 10 percent? Everyone who quotes that statistic says it like staying cancer-free is a sure thing. It’s not. That’s what they said my first go-round with melanoma, before it became metastatic. But, he did say, “good scans” and “five years out,” and the truth is my chances are good enough that if I were playing Texas Hold’em, I’d go all in. A smile indeed.

So, now seems like as good a time as any to look back over what I’ve learned these past five years.

• We should try to stay a little more in the present.
It’s cliché, but all any of us truly has is today. So, don’t let it slip away by worrying about the past or the future. This came home to me one morning as I rode in my car wondering what my chances of survival were. It dawned on me that perhaps the one certainty of my day was that I wasn’t going to die from cancer that day. There was nothing to say I was going to make it to supper, but it wasn’t going to be cancer that got me. So, I decided to just be where I was, in the here and now. On that day, I loved some people, tried to do good work, and said thank you a lot. Then, I got up the next day and did it again.
It’s cliché, but all any of us truly has is today. So, don’t let it slip away by worrying about the past or the future.• I’m actually not afraid to die. 
(Except when I think about it too much.) Mostly, when I think about death, I’m just sad because what I’ve realized is that I love being alive. I love my family. I love laughing. I love loving. I’d like to see my youngest grandson graduate from high school. I want to meet his children. I’d love to go on vacation with a whole gang of grands and great grands (on them, of course). I love this life and the people in it. But I’m not afraid of the next chapter.

• Being brave isn’t bravado. 
It’s being able to keep moving. It’s caring about other folks, smiling, and doing your job. Mostly, it’s keeping an outward focus. Cancer wants to suck you inside yourself. It wants to scare you and make you focus on the lousy cards in your hand. The best way to fight cancer is to fight that. Whenever I’ve taken the time to focus on other people – loving them, encouraging them – I found that, as I did, I grew stronger. I grew braver. 

• We do get strength from others. 
Prayer shawls, meals, hugs, pats on the back, and listening ears impart super powers. Even more special sources of hope and comfort are the bonds you develop with fellow survivors and their families. Over the course of treatment and survival, the cancer family grows. Not everyone makes it, but all become precious to you and transform your life.

• Each day is a gift. 
Thanks to cancer, I’ve become more grateful, more appreciative, more aware of the gift of a new day. That’s not to say I don’t still piss some time away (I guess that’s just part of the human condition), but it’s less, way less, than it used to be.

• Finally, I’ve learned a little bit about miracles. 
I don’t mean the miracles of medicine. Yes, those are wonderful; they saved my life. But I’m talking about deeper and more profound stuff. I’ve learned that God (or a higher power, or the universe, or just our inner strength) can take something as awful as cancer and make it a teacher, a blessing even. You see, it’s when we’re at the end of our resources, when health, willpower, and even our human faith are depleted that the whole thing gets turned around and a transformation takes place. 

Now, all of this is not to say that cancer is particularly fun, or that it’s a path I’d choose if given the choice. But if you have to go there, you may as well learn something. You may as well come through it seeing a little more clearly, loving a little more dearly, and following a little more nearly.


Jim Hunter is a metastatic melanoma survivor living in Old Fort, NC.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2018.