What it’s like to survive cancer, by those who have done it | Guardian readers and Sarah Marsh

As research shows more people than ever are alive decades after diagnosis, we speak to five people about life after treatment

The chances of surviving cancer are much greater than ever before. In a study published by the charity Macmillan Cancer Support it was found that people are now twice as likely to live at least 10 years after being diagnosed than they were 35 years ago.

Five people shared with us their cancer remission stories and what they learned from the experience.

Stephen Evans, 63, Abu Dhabi: Having come so close to death, I now realise life is short

Stephen
Stephen Evans in 2012

I was surprised by how accepting I was when told I had cancer in 2011. The diagnosis came only a couple of years after my father had suddenly succumbed to lung cancer. At one point I came very close to death as a consequence of leukopoenia, a reduction in the number of white cells in the blood, rather than the cancer itself. Having come so close to losing my life, I now realise life is short and nothing is certain.

My first dose of chemotherapy was dreadful. The oncologist and nurses warned me it would be, but it was still a shock. I felt hot, and nauseous and thrashed about in pain. I wouldve fallen off the bed if the nurses hadnt been hanging on to me. However, after that one episode, ongoing chemotherapy caused me no further problems. In fact, the whole treatment programme was so well managed that eventually I just went back to work and pretty much lived normally.

Ive been in remission since 2014 and I feel pretty good. The cancer may return one day, but Im ready for it I know the symptoms and Im confident prompt treatment will see me OK once more.

Finding out my cancer was gone was not the dramatic moment one might imagine because I could feel I was getting back to normal. I have a clinical background and so I viewed the whole thing quite analytically. When my oncologist told me I now needed only annual check-ups I just went back to normal living like it was no big deal. Its funny really.

Rebecca Palmer, 36, Colchester: One minute I was looking for baby clothing and the next wigs

Becky
Photograph: Becky Palmer

Id gone from being pregnant to having cancer in the space of a matter of weeks one minute I was looking for baby clothing online and the next wigs. I simply didnt have time to be ill and it was a mighty inconvenience to my lovely life.

I had a molar pregnancy a type of gestational trophoblastic tumour that happens when the normal fertilisation of an egg goes wrong. To get cancer as a result of a miscarriage seemed so surreal to me, it actually made the whole thing seem like a very bizarre dream.

Six months of chemo followed and with the help of my husband and incredible nurses and doctors I got through it. My cancer has a very high survival rate, so I wasnt hugely surprised to go into remission. It was the only outcome I expected and I simply wanted to get back to my normal life.

Becky

Im not sure the whole experience taught me anything. I rather suspect Im supposed to say something poignant about life and I am bloody grateful to be here but cancer itself is just a bad bit of my past and has no particular impact on my present. I now have three children and I dont have the time or inclination to give cancer any more of my life.

Robert Barden, 58, Portland: Im still on the road to remission, but feeling positive helps

Robert
Photograph: Robert Barden

I found out that I had lung cancer in the summer of 2011. I was terrified when I heard the news as my stepfather and grandmother both died of it. After the initial shock, I went into a state of denial. Then, I felt determined: I was not going to let my wife and daughters watch me die from this.

Surgery started just a couple weeks after my diagnosis. My lung was collapsed, and there was no time to waste. They removed the lower lobe of my left lung. That was followed by a month of daily radiation treatments, due to a positive test on one of the lymph nodes. It was emotionally draining to realise that I was not out of the woods with surgery alone, but this prepared me for the battle to come. The following two years were met with recurrent tumours requiring the inevitable chemo treatments and more surgery, the last two-and-a-half years ago.

Im still on the road to remission. Ive recently graduated to six month scans, as opposed to three monthly ones, so the prognosis is cautiously optimistic until I reach the five-year mark. But Im halfway there and feel great about it.

Ive learned that a positive attitude and sense of humour is sometimes the only thing that will get you through the day. There were many times when all we could do was laugh or cry, and we most often chose to laugh.

Tom, 43, Hertfordshire: The surgeon said removing my testicle was like getting a Malteser out of the bag

Id known I had testicular cancer before the diagnosis. The lump had been there for months, stubbornly refusing to go away and, by the time I actually mustered the courage to take it to the doctor, the testicle was at least twice normal size. There were only so many possibilities in terms of what was wrong with me and blind optimism has never been my strong point. It was almost a relief to have it confirmed. I had a weekend between diagnosis on the Friday and finding out that the cancer hadnt spread. I spent most of it drunk.

You either learn to laugh at humiliating situations or youll have to crawl under a rock and die of shame somewhere. Before my operation, I had an entire class of medical students have a feel of my diseased nut so that theyd recognise it in future. I dont know how anyone cant see the funny side of that.

I had an orchidectomy, a surgical procedure to remove one testicle. I made the surgeon write on my left leg which ball I was having off, complete with an arrow pointing at the offending gonad. She was the same woman who had charmingly told me what a simple operation it was, like getting the last Malteser out of the bag.

After that, I had the option of one big dose of chemo to be sure. I took it, as I figured it would give me peace of mind. If Id known how it felt, I might not have done. At the risk of stating the obvious, chemo is not pleasant.

Its been over 10 years since I was diagnosed. My life has changed in lots of ways and I wonder if the cancer had something to do with it. I became far more reckless afterwards. Im not sure whether that was as a sort of life is short reaction to what happened. Whatever caused it, that period led to the break-up of my relationship. I cant blame the cancer, but it feels like it was a catalyst. Or it might just be a convenient excuse for my own bloody awful behaviour.

Either way, Ive remarried now and I hardly ever think about the cancer any more. Its still good for the odd comic anecdote here and there, but thats about it.

Kathy, 65, Lancashire: Remission felt like the end of a journey I never thought Id complete

Radiologist
When the cancer came back 12 years later, I opted for a bilateral mastectomy. Photograph: Rui Vieira/PA

The first time I heard the words I wanted to run away rather than face up to what was happening. The doctor was cold, clinical and didnt seem to understand why I was so terrified the nurse tried to tell me that people did survive but nothing made any sense at that point. I just thought, Im going to die.

My bloke, my sister and best friend got me through it. When the cancer came back 12 years later, I opted for a bilateral mastectomy and had both breasts removed. I had bilateral reconstruction with muscle taken from my abdomen during a nine-hour operation. Unfortunately, I haemorrhaged in the recovery room and it took a further two hours to control the bleeding. The reconstruction was wrecked from that point on. Following surgery I had six rounds of chemotherapy, followed by radiotherapy.

When I found out I was in remission it felt like I had finally got to the end of a journey I never thought Id complete. I felt a huge mix of relief and exhaustion. My experience taught me that there are so many brilliant, kind, supportive people in my life, and out there generally. As time goes by Ive realised that if youre here, there may be reasons for that. It sounds like a cliche, but I believe people should live for the moment. Do what you want to do, be where you want to be, and spend time with those who matter to you.

  • Some names have been changed.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/aug/03/what-its-like-to-survive-cancer-by-those-who-have-been-given-the-all-clear