When are you considered a cancer survivor?

For most cancer patients, especially those with an early stage of cancer, surviving cancer is the goal of treatment. You want to go from being a cancer patient to being a cancer survivor.

At what point does a person achieve the status of cancer survivor, and what does life after cancer look like?

The definition of “cancer survivor” can be different depending on whom you ask and why. It’s not completely black and white.

According to the American Cancer Society, the term “cancer survivor” is defined as anyone with cancer regardless of what stage of treatment they are going through.

Erin Mclaughlin is an oncology nurse navigator for OSF HealthCare whose job is to support cancer patients and serve as their advocate through every step of their cancer journey.

“We have cancer patients who are going through maintenance therapy as part of a palliative care plan,” Erin said. “Their cases may be handled differently than other survivors because they are still in active treatment, but as long as they are alive and fighting, being a cancer survivor is a badge of honor, and I don’t take that away from anyone.”

However, if you’re discussing your care plan with your medical team, the term “cancer survivor” has a more practical clinical definition: A survivor is someone whose cancer is in remission following the conclusion of treatment.

In that case, “survivor” is a status that means you are ready for the surveillance stage of care, which involves periodic visits to the oncologist for an examination or blood test to make sure the cancer has not returned.

What is remission?

Remission means that you have no – or fewer – remaining signs or symptoms of cancer. Either your tumor is gone – known as complete remission – or it has shrunk or shows no signs of growing – known as partial remission. Having your cancer in remission does not mean that you are cured, however.

Because some cancer cells can remain after treatment, there is the risk that cancer can return, especially within the first five years. That is why surveillance of your condition is important following treatment.

For breast cancer patients at OSF HealthCare, a survivorship care plan is created if the cancer remains in remission six months after treatment. That plan details how often you will need to follow up with a provider, which specialists you will need to continue to meet with and what testing will be needed to monitor your health.

Cancer survivorship programs

Once you’ve achieved cancer survivor status, and you have a surveillance plan laid out to monitor your health, how do you deal with post-treatment life? There may be physical, mental or financial challenges to face as a result of cancer and cancer treatment.

Thankfully, there are cancer survivorship programs that can provide the support you need. You don’t have to try to go it alone. It can be difficult, but the proper help just might make all the difference.

Last Updated: October 18, 2022