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  • Writer's picturePamela Weintraub

THE NEW SURVIVORS, Psychology Today 2009

For over 11 million Americans, cancer is no longer a definite death sentence. The dreaded disease has instead become a crucible, often remaking personality and endowing survivors with qualities not even they knew they had.

Jasan Zimmerman was 6 months old when he was diagnosed with neuroblastoma of the left neck in 1976. First the cancer was surgically removed, then he was treated with radiation. Perhaps it was exposure to all that radiation that caused the thyroid cancer when he was 15. More surgery, more radiation. But this time, old enough to grasp the situation, he was terrified. "I didn't want to die," recalls Zimmerman, who grit his teeth through the grueling treatment. Almost as difficult was the aftermath:

Traumatized by the experience, he spent his teen years sullen and depressed, without quite knowing why.

He tried to put it all out of his mind—until cancer appeared for a third time in 1997. He was 21 and had just graduated from college. Again Zimmerman was successfully treated. He pursued life goals, including a master's degree in microbiology, but his inner turmoil remained.

For 11 more years, he went for checkups, always fearing a return of the dread disease. "I'd get road rage on the way to the doctor. Even the smell of clinical antiseptic could piss me off," he reports. Despite some scares, the cancer never came back, but living with his history itself became a burden. How soon into a new relationship would he need to confess his medical past? Would he ever be free of the threat? By 2003, he was so angry that he punched a wall and broke his hand.

Today, Zimmerman is able to turn his back on the ordeal. He's done it only by embracing his role as a survivor and speaking out to many of the 1.4 million Americans diagnosed with the disease each year. His message is about the ability to overcome, and he openly describes his own experience. "Each time I share my story people feel hopeful," he says. And he does, too. "I was living under a thundercloud. It's taken me decades to grow from the experience, but the ability to inspire people has turned a negative into a positive and opened me up."

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