I recently read an article about John McCain and Jimmy Carter. Apparently, a lot of people wonder why their cancers could have had such different outcomes. The thinking behind this is something most cancer patients encounter throughout their journey. People often don’t realize that no two cancers are alike. Today I’ll share some of the reasons for this, and what it means for cancer patients and their loved ones.
Where cancer originates is what kind of cancer the patient has.
One of the reasons no two cancers are alike is because they originate in different areas of the body. For example, Jimmy Carter was diagnosed with melanoma. This is a dangerous form of skin cancer. John McCain was diagnosed with glioblastoma. A glioblastoma is a dangerous form of cancer in the brain. Jimmy Carter’s melanoma at one point metastasized (or moved) to his brain, but it was still melanoma.
My husband Dan was diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer. By the time they found it, it was in his lymphatic system. There was actually very little of it in his lungs because it metastasized so quickly. It was too late to cut it out. Even though it was in his lymph nodes when they found it, they found lung cancer cells there. At one point, like Jimmy Carter’s melanoma, it metastasized to his brain, but it was still the lung cancer cells that were in that brain tumor.
Why does this matter?
It’s important to realize that no two cancers are alike because they are treated differently. Some forms of cancer have more treatment options. Some of these options have been better researched because there are more research dollars being directed at certain cancers than others. Melanoma, cancer that metastasized to Carter’s brain, was treatable with a new immunotherapy. Glioblastoma, the form of cancer McCain suffered from, doesn’t respond to immunotherapy, and is extremely difficult to treat, especially when advanced.
Some cancers are curable, even at stage IV.
Different cancers have different staging systems. Even when a system sounds the same (for example, “stage I, II, III, or IV”) the stages don’t necessarily mean the same thing. Lymphoma is a form of cancer that can be cured, even at stage IV.
“Stage III-IV lymphomas are common, still very treatable, and often curable, depending on the NHL subtype. Stage III and stage IV [lymphoma] are now considered a single category because they have the same treatment and prognosis.” 
When someone has seen or experienced remission and even a cure for one of these “curable” cancers, it can be difficult to understand the devastation someone feels when they are told their cancer is “incurable.”
No two cancers are alike because of mutations
For a long time, lung cancer patients were relegated to “ugly step-stepsister” status; due to the impression most people have that lung cancer patients deserve to get cancer because cancer is a smoker’s disease, caused by bad behavior.
First, let me say that no one deserves cancer. Having seen this brutal disease up close, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, nor turn away and cluck my tongue if someone got it due to an “unhealthy lifestyle.”
The medical community is learning that more people get lung cancer who have never smoked (or haven’t in years) than they realized.
We were very fortunate to learn that Dan had an EGFR mutation. This is a mutation that set off a firestorm of research in the lung cancer world. With the possibilities that mutations present, they see hope for fighting this disease. So, more research dollars are being directed toward the least researched cancer and more treatment options are unfolding for lung cancer patients.
Thanks to this research, and new drugs, Dan has lived for 6 years with stage IV lung cancer. In 2012, he was given 6 months to live.
No two cancers are alike because no two patients are alike
There are so many variations between patients. One particular treatment can work great for one patient and terrible in another. Some patients tolerate treatment while others become ill to the point of death. Younger patients tend to do better than older patients on cancer treatment. Patients who have other underlying illnesses have a harder time than patients who start out healthier.
Support systems matter
No two cancers are alike because different patients have different levels of support. A strong support system can have a profound impact on both patients and caregivers. They are more likely to be compliant with treatment and understand their doctor’s recommendations. A good support system also helps combat depression that so commonly occurs in cancer patients.
It’s natural to wonder why one person can live with cancer for a long time while another succumbs to their illness. Hopefully, this post has shed some light on the variables that impact the outcome of a patient’s disease. It’s important to be aware that a person’s experience with their cancer is as individual as they are.
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In 2012 doctors diagnosed my husband, Dan, with stage IV lung cancer. Since then, our family has been learning what it means to face cancer. I’ve focused my writing and speaking on helping cancer patients and their families advocate for themselves and live life to the fullest, in spite of their illness. My goal is to help people face cancer with grace.
My book Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone Who Has Cancer, is available on Amazon.com
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I also blog at Heather Erickson Author/Writer/Speaker
 Sisson, Paul. “Why Did Carter and McCain Have Such Different Brain Tumor Results?” Sandiegouniontribune.com, The San Diego Union-Tribune, 28 Aug. 2018, www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/health/sd-no-cancer-mccain-20180824-story.html.
 “Lymphoma – Non-Hodgkin – Stages.” Cancer.Net, American Society of Clinical Oncology, 2 July 2018, www.cancer.net/cancer-types/lymphoma-non-hodgkin/stages.
 “Statistics Show the Importance of Psychosocial Support for Those Impacted by Cancer.” Imerman Angels, Imerman Angels, imermanangels.org/psychosocial/.