How Do You Celebrate Your Cancerversary?
How you observe milestones on your cancer journey is a personal decision. We spoke with five people about the creative ways they observe a cancer milestone.

Congratulations! It’s your cancerversary. Whether you celebrate on the anniversary of your diagnosis, surgery, final chemo, or your official remission date, some cancer survivors choose to mark this important milestone in their lives.

For some, it’s enough to quietly reflect on how far they’ve come and show gratitude to be alive for another year. Others want to shout from the rooftops that the disease messed with the wrong person.

Deciding to mark the day is a personal decision. Whether you write words of thanks in your journal, cross an item off your bucket list, or throw a big bash is your decision. Here are some ways cW readers have chosen to commemorate their cancerversaries.

heather von st james
Photo courtesy of Kevin Wood

Heather Von St. James, 49, Roseville, Minnesota: Malignant Pleural Mesothelioma

When I was diagnosed with terminal cancer, my sister and I, in our usual fashion, found that humor was the best way to cope.

I was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma when I was just 36 years old. Humor was the only thing that helped me not panic. I was given just 15 months to live unless I traveled across the country to see a specialist who would perform an invasive but life-saving surgery called an extrapleural pneumonectomy. In layman’s terms, the surgery would remove my lung and the surrounding tissue. It was the best chance to save my life, so I agreed to do it.

A year later, my sister decided the day of the surgery needed to be celebrated. Since the date was Feb. 2, Groundhog Day, she renamed it “Lung Leavin’ Day.” She and my husband decided we should start a tradition. Every year on Feb. 2, we write our fears on a ceramic plate and smash it into a bonfire.

The fears I had bottled up over the past year leaked from the Sharpie as my plate filled with my frantic writing: What if the cancer comes back? What if the chemo didn’t work? Will my baby girl be OK if I die?

It was minus 17 degrees that night, but that didn’t stop us. We held our plates high over the fire pit and, with an almost primal yell, smashed those fears into the fire. A tradition was born that night, and it’s one we celebrate every year on the first Saturday in February. On the sixth anniversary, we turned Lung Leavin’ Day into a fundraiser to give back to the mesothelioma community. Since then, we have raised more than $35,000 for mesothelioma research and asbestos awareness.

I’ve outlived my best-case scenario by 10 years and have no plans of stopping now.

ellis emerson
Photo courtesy of Ellis Emerson

Ellis Emerson, 33, Fort Worth, Texas: Melanoma

I am coming up on my first diagnosis anniversary. To me, it’s just another day. I have stage III melanoma so there is no remission. I am NED (no evidence of disease) and have been so since my second surgery two months after my diagnosis. I completed 18 weeks of infusions and am starting another treatment soon. It is a long journey.

So how do I mark milestones? By living every day. I have done so much this year and lived fully and wonderfully. Each day alive and feeling good is a testament to my cancerversary.

Photo courtesy of Heidi Bright

Heidi Bright, 57, Cincinnati, Ohio: Uterine Sarcoma

When I was diagnosed with highly aggressive, end-stage uterine sarcoma in July 2009, I learned the difference between healing through conventional medicine and being healed by changing the way I lived my life. I chose to use both approaches.

My role model for healing was a biblical character, Martha of Bethany. According to legend, this follower of Jesus traveled to a village in what is now France being terrorized by a “dragon” called the Tarasque. She chose to approach it barefoot, carrying only holy water and a cross. She subdued the dragon, and the villagers killed it.

The town was renamed Tarascon and became the third-largest pilgrimage site during the Middle Ages. The Sainte-Marthe Royal Collegiate Church houses what are considered Martha’s relics.

Martha demonstrated that I, through lifestyle changes, could tame the cancer in my body. I could use her example to change my attitude, reconstruct my behaviors, and make major life choices to help subdue my own cancer “dragon.” Then medical treatment could kill it.

After two years of transforming my life, along with 42 days of chemotherapy and three major surgeries, I entered radical remission in August 2011.

This is my seventh year free of evidence of disease and free of treatment. In biblical terms, this is the Year of Jubilee. I wanted to celebrate by visiting and giving my heartfelt thanks in Martha’s church in Tarascon, France, and did so in September 2018.

I spent a full day in Tarascon, much of it sitting in Martha’s sanctuary. I cried with deep gratitude and profound joy. I am still alive, still healthy, and able to be in a place brimming with devotion for my favorite saint. I lit a candle and prayed for all cancer patients to be able to subdue their cancer dragons and find their way back to health.

Photo courtesy of Riley Castro

Lindsay Ronnau Hildebrand, 37, Centennial, Colorado: Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma

On Dec. 29, 2016, I was diagnosed with stage III Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Fast-forward through rounds of chemotherapy, and on Aug. 27, 2017, I was declared in remission.

My husband is active-duty military, and we were stationed in a very small town in New Mexico when I got my diagnosis. All my best girlfriends were back home in Kansas City, Missouri. Once I was on the path to remission, my gals and I started planning a celebratory hiking trip in Colorado for September 2017. I was supposed to be done with treatment in June, but my oncologist added two extra rounds of chemo, which lasted an additional six weeks. I did not push our trip back and decided I would just try to rally through, even though the trip was so close to the end of my chemo.

My gal pals and I decided to celebrate by hiking our first-ever fourteener, a hike that goes above 14,000 feet in elevation. We rented an Airbnb in Breckenridge and decided to hike Quandary Peak.

The highest point of the peak is 14,265 feet, and although I didn’t make it to the top, after more than six hours of hiking, I made it to 14,065 feet. I felt every single emotion hiking up that mountain: furious because of all I had endured, total elation because I beat cancer and was on top of the world with my best friends, absolute terror because (whoa) that hike was hard, and joy because I couldn’t believe I was doing this. It was surreal and one of the hardest things I’ve ever done (including eight rounds of chemo). I had absolutely no business being on the side of that mountain, but I was determined to give cancer the middle finger at the top.

I had every reason in the world to be angry and jaded, but I also had every reason in the world to be happy and thankful, and I chose that.

Photo courtesy of Riley Castro

Riley Castro, 28, Crestview, Florida: Colon Cancer

I celebrate a couple of different milestones. Every year I buy a colon cancer awareness ornament to put on a mini, white “colon cancer” tree during Christmastime. It is separate from the family Christmas tree. I love the idea of having a tree dedicated to showing my accomplishment of another year spent with my family on that holiday. Last year, I had three of those silver ornaments.

I also made a shirt for my now three-year-old daughter that says “our little fighter.” It’s an adult-size large! I take a picture of her in it every year on my remission day (Feb. 26, 2016), because I was 17 weeks pregnant when doctors told me I had stage IV colon cancer. We both were at risk, but here we are, alive.


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