In this week’s Science Times, I was heartened to see the spread “Second Life: Moving Beyond Cancer.” The story features a photo collage of children and adults, parents and grandparents, couples and families. Some people are pictured snorkeling, dancing, and mountain climbing, while others are in wedding dresses, holding hands, and blowing out birthday candles. While they come from different walks of life, they have all survived a devastating disease—and have gone on to meet challenges and achieve goals. Their lives have been forever changed, but their expressions are of renewal and hope.
Seeing these photos and reading the accompanying stories online, I was inspired by the celebration of cancer survival. And it made me look forward to a time when we might a see a similar article, celebrating people in recovery from substance abuse.
Today, there’s a stigma associated with addiction that makes articles featuring those in recovery few and far between. But if the history of cancer is any indication, I am optimistic that this may change. With all the pink ribbons and walks for the cause, we often forget that not too long ago, cancer was heavily stigmatized. In the early 70s, when my grandfather was diagnosed, I remember my relatives discussing his condition in whispers. The word “cancer” was something you could only say in a hushed tone. This changed when doctors developed effective cancer treatments and a greater percentage of people survived. Consequently, the public perception of cancer changed from a death sentence to an illness that could be controlled and—in many cases—conquered.
Similarly, while it has not disappeared, the stigma of AIDS is nowhere near what it was in the 1980s. This is, in large part, due to the development of anti-retroviral treatments, which slow the progress of HIV and allow those with HIV to lead productive and satisfying lives.
As with cancer, AIDS, and other chronic illnesses, I believe we’ll see the stigma of substance abuse decrease when the public recognizes that we have effective treatment. Scientists have suggested that public opinion shifts when thirty percent of those who need treatment receive it. We have a long way to go on that front, given that 25 million Americans meet criteria for substance abuse, but only 2.3 million receive treatment. However, with healthcare reform making it possible for many more people to get the help they need, I am confident that we’ll see that gap shrink in the next three to five years.
As more men, women, and young people receive successful substance abuse treatment, I foresee greater understanding that addiction is a chronic illness—but the future for those struggling with this disease is far from hopeless. Like cancer survivors, people in recovery can go on to lead productive, rewarding lives. As a treatment professional—and especially, as someone in long-term recovery—I know that this true. Since entering treatment 27 years ago, I have accomplished goals that I never imagined possible.
My story is not unique. I invite you to share your own journey in the comments section below. How has recovery changed your life?
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