It begins with three chilling words, "You have cancer." And then, your life forever changes.
Annie Johnson of Sioux Falls, South Dakota was a young college student when she was told she had cancer—and that it was terminal. She was given 2 months to live. So she dropped out of school and prepared for the worst. "I'm not supposed to be here…" Annie says. "But I’m living proof that miracles happen—they can happen at any moment of life, and sometimes even in the darkest hour."
Today, June 5 is National Cancer Survivor’s Day. More than 11 million cancer survivors—like Annie—will celebrate around the nation on that day to observe the 24th annual Survivor’s Day. Communities worldwide will join together to celebrate life, and show that life after a cancer diagnosis can be meaningful and fulfilling.
Annie was devastated with her diagnosis, but refused to give up. She went through multiple surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation and stem cell transplants. She started eating better, exercising, drinking nutritional shakes, taking better care of herself. And she decided to keep on living her life.
She even enrolled again in college, knowing full well she might never finish. But then, Annie is a fighter, determined not to let cancer slow her down, determined that cancer is only a sidestep in her life, and that nothing—not even cancer—can slow her dreams.
"I have been surviving Hodgkin's lymphoma for three years," says Annie. "This has given me strength and focus. Every day I think about my future with confidence, knowing that I have the ability to beat this cancer."
Today she's in full remission. “I celebrate life every day,” says Annie. “I want to use my life to make a difference for those going through the same thing I am; to give them hope.”
Annie is also making it her mission to tell people about the American Cancer Society and how they can help survivors and their families.
"When I was going through treatment, one of the services that really helped me was the Look Good, Feel Better program," says Annie. Look Good, Feel Better (LGFB) is a free service to patients in active treatment, offered in partnership through the American Cancer Society, the Personal Care Products Council Foundation and the Professional Beauty Association/National Cosmetology Association. Look Good, Feel Better helps female cancer patients with the appearance-related side effects of cancer—with classes on how to cover skin problems, and how to compensate for loss of eyelashes or eyebrows.
"It’s a program that too few cancer patients know about," says Annie. And like Annie, they could receive help. It’s offered in group sessions where a make-up kit is supplied to participants, and it’s also offered online for those who can’t get to a group session. It helps women feel more confident during cancer.
"Cancer can take a lot of things from you," says Annie. "But it doesn't have to take your self-esteem." In addition to cosmetic programs like Look Good, Feel Better, the American Cancer Society also helps patients by providing rides to treatments; lodging during treatment; emotional support (such as breast cancer support and cancer education classes); hair-loss and mastectomy products (wigs, hats, bras, etc.); online community (to share stories, blog, and talk in an online chat room with other survivors, visit our Cancer Survivors Network at www.cancer.org) and information (all 1.800.227.2345 to talk to a Cancer Information Specialists, day or night; they can can help you understand your cancer and treatment options, find help with insurance, Medicare, and Medicaid, and find programs in your area for people with cancer).
A survivor is anyone living with a history of cancer, from the moment of diagnosis through the remainder of life. And best advice from Annie for anyone newly diagnosed with cancer? "Cancer did not take away the important things in my life. It cannot stop your creativity, your ability to love, your optimism, or your faith. That’s the most important message I want people to hear: That there’s hope. I’m living proof." She pauses for a moment, and smiles, "And there’s a miracle waiting for you too; I believe that."
Charlotte Hofer is Public Relations Manager, South Dakota, for the?American Cancer Society and a member of the Native American Journalists Association.