I’ve Survived Cancer for Over 71 Years

My advocacy work has shown me that more than anything else, survivors are just happy to meet someone who has outlived cancer for so long.

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More than being interested in what I have to say, cancer survivors I meet are just happy to see someone who has survived the disease for more than 70 years, and I’m grateful to be a beacon of light for them.
— Linda McDonald

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Even though I was just 3 years old when my symptoms first appeared, the memory is still fresh in my mind to this day, 71 years later. I had just come home from a friend’s birthday party and was sitting on the front patio steps immobilized by severe stomach pain. My parents said I was feeling ill from eating too much cake, candy, and ice cream, never imagining the pain was actually caused by a pediatric cancer called Wilms tumor. This was in 1945, when the word “cancer” was never spoken out loud. In fact, I didn’t even know I had had cancer until many years later.

Because World War II was still raging when I was diagnosed and gas was rationed, my mother and I had to walk to the train station to take a train and then a trolley to get to the hospital for treatment, which included surgery to remove my left kidney, followed by radiation therapy. I was such a physically active child, I can remember—to the horror of my parents and nurses—turning somersaults in my crib in the hospital, unfazed by the bandages and stitches holding my left side together.

Cancer in 30-Year Increments

Being physically active and constantly in motion was such an integral part of my early life—and remains so today. I found the piano lessons my parents insisted I take too confining and finally gave them up in favor of dance classes, which put me on a lifelong career path of developing dance and movement programs for people of all ages. I’m convinced that the dance programs helped me overcome 2 more bouts of cancer over the next 60 years and have kept me alive.

Thirty years after my Wilms tumor diagnosis, I was diagnosed with uterine carcinoma in situ and had a hysterectomy. I was fortunate that the radiation therapy I had had so long ago didn’t prevent me from having children and that I was able to have my second child before uterine cancer and its treatment permanently took away my ability to have more children.

Despite this second turn with cancer, I refused to let it interfere with the trajectory of my life and career. While raising a family, I continued to design and teach movement classes in dance and other forms of artistic expression for all educational levels—from preschool to college. Later I even developed movement techniques for older adults, those with physical and mental challenges, and cancer survivors.

But it wasn’t until I developed stage III estrogen receptor–positive breast cancer in my left breast 11 years ago and had to have a modified radical mastectomy, plus adjuvant chemotherapy and radiation therapy, that I began channeling my energy almost exclusively into patient and cancer survivorship advocacy. And the work is fulfilling and rewarding. I have served as a peer reviewer for the Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program and as a patient advocate for the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship, the National Breast Cancer Coalition, and the Society for Integrative Oncology as well as have spoken at their and other cancer organizations’ conferences about my experiences with cancer.

What I’ve realized is that more than being interested in what I have to say, cancer survivors I meet are just happy to see someone who has survived the disease for more than 70 years, and I’m grateful to be a beacon of light for them. A survivor of both childhood cancer and lymphedema from my mastectomy, I’m also dedicating my advocacy efforts to increasing federal spending in pediatric cancer research and to passing the Lymphedema Treatment Act now before Congress, which would provide Medicare coverage of doctor-prescribed compression supplies, which are so essential to the treatment of this condition.

The Randomness of Cancer

Over my life, I’ve done a lot of soul searching to figure out both why I contracted three different cancers and why I’m still here when so many others have died of their disease, but I haven’t come up with any satisfying answers. Raised on a farm, I have always lived a healthy lifestyle. I don’t smoke and seldom drink, I eat well, I have a positive attitude and deep faith, and, of course, I’ve always been physically active.

And while doing all the right things may not have prevented me from getting cancer, I’m convinced maintaining that lifestyle over my nearly 75 years is what is keeping me alive and engaged in my work to ensure all cancer survivors enjoy the quality of life I’ve been blessed to have. ■

Ms. McDonald lives in Sarasota, Florida. She is the author of an autobiographically based children’s book, Dancing Cancer (AuthorHouse, 2010).