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Life After Cancer

"I have always, before, during and after cancer, lived my best life."

Welcome, my friends, to the launch of a new EACH Breath Blog series: Life After Cancer. If you are in remission, cured, living with cancer or know someone who is, then you are in the right place. Most importantly, you are not alone.

My name is Denise Zimmerman and I am a stage IV lung cancer survivor. But I am more than that. I am a mother, a wife, a daughter, a former business owner, an entrepreneur and a LUNG FORCE Hero. I’ve had a life full of personal and professional triumphs as well as challenges. However, I have always, before, during and after cancer, lived my best life.

Most people don’t know that lung cancer is the number one cancer killer. And it doesn’t have to be. About 8 million Americans qualify as high risk for lung cancer according to the American Lung Association. If all were screened, it is estimated that 48,000 lives would be saved. Unfortunately, the lung cancer screening rate is shockingly low, only 4.2% of those eligible. One of the reasons for the low screening rate is the public's fatalistic view of lung cancer. This view steals life from scores of folks who could be here with us today. It could have easily been me if I wasn’t scanned. You can learn more about lung cancer screening at SavedbytheScan.org.

Denise Zimmerman

I had no symptoms. I had no indication whatsoever that I had lung cancer. As a former smoker, my general practitioner recommended I receive a low-dose CT scan. My test results from the scan detected an 8 cm tumor. Five years ago, this would have been a death sentence. Today, thanks to the scan and receiving treatments that have just recently become available, I am here to share my story with you. I am living proof that even stage IV lung cancer patients can survive. Not only survive but thrive.

Cancer survivors are a growing population. You would be hard pressed to find someone who isn’t touched by cancer in some way. As of 2016, there were an estimated 15.5 million cancer survivors in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Cancer Institute report that the number of cancer survivors will reach almost 18 million in the next decade.

This is thanks to the game changing advancements in lung cancer treatment, which are dramatically improving life expectancy and quality of life. For a disease that once had a five-year survival rate of only five percent for advanced stages, better care has helped improve that rate to 16 percent, and it’s expected to continue to improve thanks to the addition of personalized treatments, like immunotherapy and targeted therapy. We are hopeful that with continued advancements, cancer may simply become a chronic illness or managed disease like diabetes. This is wonderful news for the thousands of lung cancer patients diagnosed each year.

However, surviving cancer also comes with its own challenges. While the medical community, patients, family and friends celebrate us, cancer survivors are constantly confronted by special treatment and erroneous perception in the workplace and in our personal lives, topics I intend to discuss more in future blogs. This population has triumphed against deadly odds. A growing number of employees, for example, continue to work while being treated for cancer or return to work shortly after their cancer treatment is completed.

Remission is a triumph and we must look forward to what is next. I am passionate about sharing my story as well as the stories of others to help inspire more lung cancer survivors to live their best life. How does one live, love and prosper when the world continues to define and limit survivors by their cancer?

Future blog posts in this series will explore the triumphs and challenges of being a cancer survivor. From careers, to relationships, to how to thrive as the “new” you, I will share tips, insights and stories. I am thrilled to help elevate our collective voices and be a part of this exciting new collaboration with the American Lung Association.

Let’s forge new roads and celebrate our futures, not just the past. For any Star Trek fans out there, Live Long and Prosper.

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