SALT LAKE CITY — All she ever wanted was to be a grandmother and she'd been accumulating various ideas and activities to do with her prospective grandchildren for years.
But then doctors discovered a large mass in Marion Peterson's armpit, and cancer had spread to 17 of 20 lymph nodes in the same general area. All of it needed to be removed.
"I cried and cried because I had never seen anyone survive with that many lymph nodes affected," Peterson said.
But she was determined to make it. And in the 13 years since being diagnosed in 1998, she has spent countless hours entertaining and getting to know her nine grandchildren, who "mean the world to me."
Peterson is not out of the woods yet, as the cancer could come back, but she joins the more than 11.7 million cancer survivors in the United States today — a number that is increasing as early detection and prevention methods are becoming more widespread.
"I'm trying to make the most of my time, while I've still got it," she said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the majority of today's cancer survivors are women winning the battle against breast cancer. Prostate and colorectal cancers are also common among survivors, as well as cancers among children. Nearly 65 percent of cancer survivors are now living at least five years or more after their diagnosis of cancer and 59 percent of them are over age 65, according to the CDC.
Just 40 years ago, the numbers paled in comparison, when only 3 million were counted as survivors of cancer. Then, a much higher number became victims of the largely unexplained disease.
"Imaging and radiology has improved and our ability to diagnose cancers sooner has improved," said Dr. Jennifer Wright, a pediatric oncologist with the Huntsman Cancer Institute. She said surgical care and techniques have also improved over the years, increasing the chance of survival for cancer patients.
Attitude, Wright said, can be a contributing factor as well, helping patients get through the complications of treatment.
"Each type of cancer usually has a follow-up regimen in terms of surveillance for recurrence and if patients stick to that schedule, they might have an advantage in terms of survival the second time around," she said. Children are typically more resilient, Wright said, adding that they can tolerate more intense therapy better than most of their adult counterparts.
The CDC attributes increasing survivorship to earlier detection, improved diagnostic methods, more effective treatment, improved clinical follow-up after treatment and an aging U.S. population. If these trends continue, the number of cancer survivors is expected to increase further.
"It is good news that so many are surviving cancer and leading long, productive and healthy lives," said Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, CDC director. "Preventing cancer and detecting it early remain critically important as some cancers can be prevented or detected early enough to be effectively treated."
Smoking cessation or not smoking, regular physical activity, healthy eating, and limiting alcohol use, he said, can reduce the risk of many cancers.
In Utah, the number of people who die each year from cancer has either been stable or declining since the late '90s. With just over 2,500 lives lost per year in Utah, it is still well below the national averages. Certain types of cancer, however, seem to be rising, including melanoma of the skin and thyroid cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute.
The NCI and CDC work together to track and research statistics surrounding cancer incidence, to better understand cancer survivorship and find out what it takes to make it.
Despite what the experts say, Peterson, who worked for the American Cancer Society as an education specialist prior to her diagnosis, said friends and family and mostly their hope and prayers, made a world of difference to her in her struggle to beat cancer.
After a double mastectomy, she said she feels "really proud to be a survivor."
"I'm really glad that the world of medicine was there to help me," she said, crediting the doctors she felt cared about her personally. "I felt like I had all of these really good people that probably got up and prayed every day about the patients they were going to help."
"I had a friend who had a school back in Ohio praying for me," she said, adding that she felt power from the prayers, which were offered by so many — even people she didn't know, from various religious backgrounds and in far-off places — have kept her alive to enjoy being a grandmother.
"I feel like I'm here today because of that," Peterson said.
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