By Gevorg Tamamyan, MD, MSc
The auditorium was designed for around 400 people, but only a quarter of the place was occupied. Some people were sitting next to each other; some were hiding alone at the end of the hall. It was morning of the 1st Cancer Patients and Survivors Summit of Armenia (held July 4, 2015), and people were confused about what was going to be discussed.
The organizers also were confused because it was the first time... the first time in Armenia that people who conquered cancer were going to talk about their problems in public—not in the office of the doctor, not with the nurse, and not with a close relative holding their hand. No—this day, they were going to talk to each other and to society and raise their hands and say, “We did it! We survived!”
I have been asked so many times during my not-long medical career: “Is cancer curable?” “Are there any people who survive?” Even some of my nononcologist physician colleagues and friends, sometimes even they are suspicious and don’t believe that people can be cured. They give examples of sad outcomes, and only a few are able to cite positive examples. The reason is because patients hide their disease; people don’t talk about having cancer, and those who survive never want to remember the experience. That’s why people do not know examples of success; they don’t know the stories of survivors.
Professor Peter Greenberg, MD, of Stanford University, started his talk, and at some point, looking to another Summit participant, he mentioned that a few decades ago, she had also conquered cancer and that launched an active discussion.
A famous Armenian composer who survived leukemia and who afterwards established a charitable foundation to help children with cancer, followed, and he said, “Yes, I am a survivor!” His speech was so emotionally dense that everyone in the auditorium was almost in tears... tears of happiness, happiness that he was alive to share his story.
Unexpectedly, a famous physician who was chairing the session shared a story of survival in his family as well. This was really a surprise for everyone, no one expected that, but the door had been opened and others began sharing as well: a mother of a child who survived cancer told how she founded a charity and gave “hero” medals to children with cancer, children who were so happy and shy, they truly were the real HEROES; breast cancer survivors who talked about an awareness campaign they started; a cancer survivor who suggested creating a psychological service for adults with cancer; doctors who talked about problems during treatment; and patients and caregivers describing their own cancer journeys... the discussion was on!
This year, we had also discussed the possibility of organizing a survivors’ walk, but it was too late to organize it. But next year, we will address the issue again, and I am sure this next time, we will make it happen....
The first step is done; the discussion has been launched; now we need to keep going....
Gevorg Tamamyan, MD, MSc, is a pediatric hematologist/oncologist from Armenia. Currently, Dr. Tamamyan is a postdoctoral fellow of the Department of Leukemia at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and a PhD candidate at the Department of Oncology of Yerevan State Medical University. Previously, he was a Medical Research Fellow at the European Organization of Research and Treatment of Cancer (EORTC). Dr. Tamamyan was also a recipient of the 2013 International Development and Education Award (IDEA) and 2014 Long-term International Fellowship (LIFe) Award from the Conquer Cancer Foundation of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.