Surviving Cancer: It's Complicated

06/14/2012 01:51 pm ET Updated Aug 14, 2012

Cancer is complicated.

And being a survivor can be complicated, too -- confounding, confronting, and confusing.

Even starting with the word itself. It can be confusing to know exactly what is meant by cancer survivor. So for the first time in the 18 years of my own survival, I looked up the definition on the American Cancer Society website.

Survivor can have several different meanings when applied to people with cancer. Some people use the word to refer to anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer. For example, someone living with cancer may be considered a survivor. Some people use the term when referring to someone who has completed cancer treatment. And still others call a person a survivor if he or she has lived several years past a cancer diagnosis. The American Cancer Society believes that each individual has the right to define his or her own experience with cancer and considers a cancer survivor to be anyone who defines himself or herself this way, from the time of diagnosis throughout the balance of his or her life.

I love the idea of survivors defining ourselves.

Over the past few decades, being a cancer survivor has changed from something hidden or private to a badge of honor. Today the label signifies a warrior, a source of constant inspiration, always brave and upbeat, walking to raise money or climbing a mountain.

Obviously all survivors aren't climbing mountains. And many of us don't feel anything remotely close to upbeat. Or brave.

I feel fortunate that I survived pretty much intact -- minus a few key body parts. But there are many other effects that you can't see.

Cancer invades not only your body but every other area of your life. After treatment, although you may survive, you may be left with damage. The heart and other organs. The immune system. Emotions. Finances. Intimacy. Stress. Fatigue. There's almost no place the tentacles of cancer don't reach.

Today those tentacles have infiltrated into the health and lives of 12 million cancer survivors in the United States alone. Over the past 40 years, our numbers have quadrupled -- and are growing every day.

The sheer size of those numbers, the broad spectrum of ways cancer impacts lives, and the high costs -- financial and otherwise -- pretty much demand that we pay attention as a society to the topic of cancer survivorship.

And it's complicated to begin to understand the issues and needs of cancer survivors, and what can be done to improve the quantity -- and quality -- of life after cancer.

Scientists are beginning to find those answers, and to devote attention to survivorship as a study in itself -- another part of the cancer journey.

There is very exciting research in many disciplines that intersect with survivorship, and a very exciting event bringing them all together as a joint project of the National Cancer Institute's Office of Cancer Survivorship, the American Cancer Society, LIVESTRONG, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Cancer Survivorship Research Conference takes place this week in Arlington, Va. with this year's theme: Translating Science to Care. The American Cancer Society says:

This meeting is a forum for researchers, clinicians, cancer survivors, advocates, program planners, policymakers, and public health experts to learn about current and emerging cancer survivorship research.

The conference addresses topics that range from obesity to fatigue to aging to resilience to relationships -- all geared to take what is learned in the lab and apply it directly to the enormous community of survivors.

I feel especially lucky to attend, as a survivor and representative of the American Cancer Society Blogger Advisory Council. I'll be sharing what I learn there -- to help other survivors live longer and stronger.

One thing I've already learned in years of connecting and communicating with the community of cancer survivors -- though they may not be in the Himalayas, they are climbing mountains every day, and every survivor I've ever met is inspiring.

For anyone who is interested in learning more about survivorship, I will post information from the conference on Twitter; after the conference on the HuffPost and on my blog: I never signed up for this.....

For more by Darryle Pollack, click here.

For more on cancer, click here.