Cancerversaries: Survivors mark milestones with tattoos, feats of strength, fundraising

Tattoos, feats of strength and fundraising are some of the ways patients observe significant dates
Cancer survivor Dave Hughes
Dave Hughes, shown in his Seattle home on April 14, 2014, will be marking the fifth anniversary of being diagnosed with testicular cancer by participating in Fred Hutch's Climb to Fight Breast Cancer. Robert Hood / Fred Hutch

Some run marathons, sponsor fundraisers or spend the day in prayer. Others purchase plaques, throw toney soirees or travel to meaningful locales to mark their “cancerversaries,” those key dates that fall a year (or more) out from diagnosis, surgery and/or the end of treatment.

“I’ve had patients get tattoos to mark a milestone,” said Dr. Larissa Korde, a breast cancer oncologist at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and researcher in the Public Health Sciences division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. “Others will have a cancerversary party or just reflect on their experience. I think people are very aware of those dates.”

Jen Singer certainly is. Each year before her annual oncology appointment, she heads to the store for a bottle of bubbly. 

“When I get the all clear from my oncologist, I pop open a bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne to celebrate another year of living,” said the 47-year-old Kinnelon, N.J., blogger who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2007. “So far, I’ve marked six cancerversaries, including one with a big party to benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.”

Mike Rubin, a 51-year-old philanthropic gifts advisor at Fred Hutch, has observed the anniversary of his 1987 bone marrow transplant in a number of ways, sending out celebratory emails and postcards to friends, family and colleagues and even hosting a dinner party (or two) for the nurses who saw him through his leukemia treatment.

In 2005 — the year of his 18-year cancerversary — Rubin purchased a commemorative slate expressing thanks to bone marrow transplant Nobel laureate Dr. E. Donnall Thomas and his wife, Dottie, along with the Hutch’s staff, patients and volunteers.  

“L’CHAIM!” the inscription ends. “Every day a holiday, every meal a feast.”  L’Chaim represents the number 18 in Hebrew, he explained. It’s also a “cheers” to life itself.

“For me, the point of celebrating is to mark what I now term my ‘bonus life,’” he said. “I want to mark the anniversary and highlight for others that their lives are bonus lives, too — whether or not they’ve faced cancer.”

To celebrate or not to celebrate

How cancerversaries are commemorated – or whether they’re commemorated at all – is indisputably an individual decision. Not all survivors want to be reminded of a traumatic surgery or difficult course of treatment, much less “celebrate” it. For them, cancerversaries may be fraught with a troubling mix of anxiety, grief and/or anger. Others revel in the fact that they’re a year or five or 10 away from a period of time where they were cut to the quick by fear, pain, surgery or debilitating treatment. 

Dates that people acknowledge also differ. Some people have multiple cancerversaries: one for a biopsy, another for a diagnosis date, yet another for surgery or the completion of chemo or other treatment. Others honor one or two particularly significant dates.

“One year out from surgery or end of treatment is a big one,” said Korde. “And in the breast cancer world, that five-year mark is definitely something we all think about and look toward. It can be a time to reflect and think about what the cancer means and it can also be a time where people feel like they can let go of certain things, like fear of recurrence. That’s very important for healing and well-being.”

Nancy Stordahl, a Wisconsin breast cancer survivor diagnosed in the spring of 2010, marked the first anniversary of her diagnosis with a trip to the Florida coast with her husband.

“I didn’t have any hair and was finishing up my reconstruction,” said Stordahl, who writes the blog, “And it was wonderful. It was like we were in the witness protection plan. Nobody [there] knew about the cancer or the treatment. It was very freeing.”

As the years have passed, however, she’s begun to mark her cancer milestones differently.

“Some of the dates are becoming a little fuzzier, like the exact date of my biopsy,” said Stordahl. “I mark them privately with myself now and don’t talk about them as much. I just feel like people don’t really want to keep hearing about it. They’ve moved on and I respect that. But I still remember nearly all of them. To me, it shows where I’ve been, how far I’ve come.”

Living strong after cancer

For Dave Hughes, a testicular cancer survivor from Seattle, cancerversaries have become an incentive for bootstrapping his way back to good health.

The active 32-year-old, who spent his honeymoon cycling 5,000 miles across the U.S. with his bride, whipped his body back into shape after surgery and chemo in order to participate in a 100-mile bike ride with the Livestrong Foundation  six months after his diagnosis. He did it again a year later.

This year, he’s observing the five-year anniversary of his diagnosis by raising funds and scaling Mount Rainier with Climb to Fight Breast Cancer.

“That first 100-mile bike ride was big for me,” said Hughes. “I trained a lot, got back in shape and I felt strong again. But this year it will be five years and that’s a significant milestone. I’ve always wanted to climb Mount. Rainier and wanted to support my aunt, who’s battling breast cancer. So I thought I’d do it for both of us.”

Hughes said for him, taking on a tough physical challenge is a good way to process the cancer – and to gain perspective.

“Climbing a mountain or biking 100 miles just helps you process it,” he said. “Part of overcoming cancer is that you do overcome it. You move on with your life. And when you do the more physical events, you’re able to reflect on your body and how it’s doing and how healthy you are. You know you’re on the other side, you know you went through the treatment and were at the bottom of the barrel, but that you’re now going about your normal life.”

Marking a significant date with an athletic accomplishment isn’t that unusual for survivors, said Korde, who said some of her patients have started running and gone on to compete in marathons.

“I definitely see that as one way patients will look forward and feel like they’ve conquered something,” she said.

Do you mark your cancerversary with a bike ride, a cocktail party, a trip to Vegas or by simply lighting a candle and reflecting on your cancer experience? Tell us about it by emaling your story and name, along with a photo, if you have one, to Selected responses may be published by Fred Hutch.


If you want to mark you cancerversary with the Hutch: 

Staff writer and breast cancer survivor Diane Mapes has spent her cancerversaries in a variety of ways: curled up in a fetal position under her coffee table, sitting on the beach with family and friends and practicing her left hook in a boxing class. Contact her at


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