Resilience Resource Center

When Treatment Is Over: Actor Sterling K. Brown Puts a Spotlight on Life After Cancer

The word ‘Survivorship’ describes an increasingly common phenomenon — patients who have beaten cancer and resumed their lives. What does life look like after cancer?

sterling k. brown
Actor Sterling K. Brown set out to normalize the experience of cancer survivorship. Everyday Health

Sign on to social media on any given day and you’re likely to encounter a certain genre of video posts — the last-day-of-treatment post.

In it, someone who’s been undergoing treatment for cancer can be seen exuberantly ringing a bell at the hospital to signify — and celebrate — that they’ve finished treatment.

It’s always a jubilant moment. The ordeal, it seems, is over.

But, as experienced cancer survivors know, the bell ringing is not really the end. What that moment actually signifies is a transition into a new and less understood phase of the cancer journey: survivorship.

Cancer mortality has been decreasing since 1991. More and more people diagnosed with cancer — nearly 17 million this year — will find themselves navigating this experience. Yet only 15 percent of survivors say they feel prepared for life after treatment, according to the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship.

That’s because survivorship is a relatively new phenomenon, and because, beyond the bell ringing, the issues that accompany it are oddly less talked about than treatment breakthroughs and the experience of cancer itself. As a result, many cancer survivors may feel isolated, like they’re figuring out life after cancer on their own.

Recently, partly in homage to his late uncle Sonny, who died from pancreatic cancer, actor Sterling K. Brown, star of the award-winning drama This is Us and Black Panther, decided to give voice to the survivor experience via a video project featuring interviews with survivors about their post-cancer lives.

“The fact that we’re talking about living with cancer and beyond cancer is a wonderful thing,” says Brown. “But just because you have survived or are considered cancer-free doesn’t mean that your journey ends. Sometimes it’s just the beginning. The way in which a cancer survivor can feel, can look, can think, has changed from before that diagnosis to after.”

The result of Brown’s effort is a two-part video project, done in partnership with Bristol-Myers Squibb, called Survivorship Today: What It’s Like to Live With Cancer, which features Brown's interviews as well as short clips of survivors talking about their experiences both during treatment and afterward.

actor sterling k. brown
Brown and Bin McLaurin talk life after cancer.Bristol-Myers Squibb

Altogether, the project paints a portrait of lives imploded and pieced back together again, and the sense that the experience leaves you, both for better and for worse, permanently changed.

Among those featured are Justin Birckbichler, who was 25 when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Birckbichler said he did not even begin to process the experience until after treatment was over.

“So much had happened so quickly, and I had no time to react. I just had time to act,” he said. After he finished treatment, he told Brown, he started looking better on the outside, but on the inside, the inverse was happening.

“During treatment I was seeing my doctor every single day, and then all of a sudden they say, ‘You’re in remission’ and I went from having a structured plan every day to not seeing anyone for six months.”

Eventually Birckbichler realized he was not feeling grateful, as was expected of him by both society and himself, but rather experiencing depression and anxiety. Part of it was the discordance between his life before the diagnosis and his life after. “I wanted to go back to pre-cancer Justin,” he said. “That doesn’t happen.” He started blogging about his experience on his blog, A Ballsy Sense of Tumor, and started to hear from others who echoed his feelings. That changed everything.

Amy Wu, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013 at age 37, said she couldn’t talk to her family about her diagnosis and treatment due to cultural issues surrounding discussing “negative” things.  “The effect on me was that I felt like I had no safe place or safe haven, nobody to share my feelings with. And that left me in a very lonely place. For me, it was like I’m walking in a desert and I need to go find water.”

She realized that she needed a community of people who would let her speak about the hard stuff. Eventually she found a support group of women who’d also survived the disease — and who now number among her best friends. “I need to share my story to be the healthiest person and live the greatest life possible for myself.”

Also featured are Jamie Ledezma, who was 27 and 14 weeks pregnant in 2007, when she found out that she had breast cancer, and Bin McLaurin, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2014 after a routine physical, who said cancer was never talked about in the community he grew up in. Learning to be open about it was part of his journey, he says.

“We need to share our experience with cancer and health crises so that we can learn from one another. One of the things that has blessed me in this experience is that I am not alone. There is a whole community available to me, resources that are available to me, that helps me not only beat cancer but thrive in spite of it.”

Taken together, the stories are an honest and compelling portrait of resilience and evidence that it’s possible to come out the other side of this experience — albeit changed in some ways that will always hurt and in some ways that will enrich your life.

Just as powerfully, the project conveys that there are legions of others out there who have shared this experience and that the remedy, for this particular kind of trauma, may be in the sense of shared experience and community.

“When you are able to connect with other people who have had that experience, it normalizes it. Instead of feeling like the odd man out, you feel like people understand,” says Brown. “I hope it diminishes stigma and normalizes the experience for people who are survivors so that they can feel entitled to feel however they feel, grateful or otherwise.”

Brown says his uncle Sonny was “a very strong dude with a military background” who let people in only toward the end of his illness. “It was lovely,” says Brown. “I wish he had been able to do it earlier.”

He says he thinks his family is pleased with the survivorship project.

“They like watching the TV show, and they like watching the movies, and they are proud and they clap,” he says. “But when I am able to use the platform of celebrity to shed light on something that is of personal importance in my life and my family’s life, they are like, ‘Way to go, way to do something of worth with this thing called celebrity.’”