Since being diagnosed, I’ve never felt comfortable calling myself a “survivor”. In fact, I hated it. I remember when only a few weeks after my surgery, a friend introduced me to someone and said, “this is my friend Jill, she is a survivor”. Although she meant it in a loving and admiring way, I instantly cringed and thought to myself, “Really, I’m a survivor? What did I survive”? I couldn’t help but feel that being called a “survivor” implied that I wasn’t supposed to live and frankly that wasn’t even close to what had happened the 7 months prior. YES, I had surgery that altered my body physically so that I could live and YES I did 16 weeks of chemotherapy so that I could go to bed at night knowing that I did EVERYTHING I could to live– BUT never did I once think I was going to die nor did I ever feel like I had “cancer”. So really what did I survive?? My cancer was early stage, not in my lymph nodes and I didn’t even lose my hair during chemo (which sometimes sends the message to the world that you are a “cancer patient” without uttering a word). It seems to me that people throw the term “survivor” around whenever there is a strong possibility of death. Like the holocaust “survivors” or someone who “survived” a physically abusive relationship or perhaps someone who “survived” a massive heart attack and was on the brink of death. Yet somehow, I am a “survivor” now?? I don’t even know what a “survivor” looks like? People tell me how I am such a strong and amazing “survivor” but frankly, what otherwise healthy 40 year-old woman doesn’t survive the type of surgery and chemotherapy that I had? So I can’t help but feel like aren’t we all survivors? Maybe it’s not “cancer” or a physical illness per se, but whatever it is, aren’t we are all just trying to make the most of this one life we are given and be here for as long as we can before we die. Isn’t that “surviving”?
And now, almost 18 months out from my surgeries and diagnoses, I am just now starting to understand what it really means to “survive” and perhaps embrace the term a little. I still wish there were a better word or phrase or perhaps not this desire to label people who have been through cancer and just want to move on from it. BUT I get it now, I didn’t before. You see, the “surviving” part doesn’t start happening until the cancer is gone and all of the surgeries are complete. Ironically, the “surviving” part starts when you start really living again. Aside from feeling like “surviving” might be sometimes harder than having cancer, here’s what I know now, that I didn’t at first:
1. Surviving creeps in slowly but surely and serves as a constant reminder that you are now different–even if you don’t want to be.
2. Surviving happens without doing anything or saying anything to anyone. It can’t be stopped or avoided–like a wave in the ocean it can rise high and fall at times. A strong survivor will learn how to ride these waves out as they come and reach out for help if they need it.
3. Surviving is sometimes scary and sometimes empowering. You can’t choose which way it will be but rather just feel and accept.
4. Surviving means that while everyone who was there either professionally or personally has moved on from the most traumatic event of my life, I am just now figuring out what really just happened to me and how I will get back to being me or whatever that means now.
5. Surviving is realizing that my once patient and reassuring doctors, who are now busy and hard to get on the phone and to get appointments with, are just human and have women in much dire situations than me to help now. I need to remind myself that I was once where those women are now and I am grateful that I am not anymore.
6. Surviving is acknowledging that the people in my support network who were and are amazing have all returned to their lives as they naturally should and I am no longer in the front of their minds everyday. As they say–life goes on (and that is a good thing!).
7. Surviving is knowing that I will feel vulnerable and alone sometimes. Remembering to breathe is what I can count on at these moments.
8. Surviving is knowing that I can never go back into the world of never having been a cancer patient.
9. Surviving is still yelling at my kids when they fight or don’t listen because still being here as their mom both to love and raise them is what they need more than anything.
10. Surviving is learning that setting healthy boundaries for myself is the ultimate act of self-care. I am still working on this one!
11. Surviving is happily and religiously taking a little white pill every night, which is the hormone therapy I will be on for the next 5-10 years (depending on the research) to prevent a recurrence, because it brings me peace of mind that I am still doing something to prevent the cancer from coming back.
12. Surviving is learning and accepting that as a result of the life saving efforts I choose to save my life and rid my body of cancer as well as that magic pill I take every night, that I now have osteoporosis at age 42.
13. Surviving is realizing that this is the trade-off I must make.
Most importantly– “surviving” is being alive. Regardless of what label you want to give it, that in and of itself is a gift.
This is what they mean by “surviving”–I am doing it every day–I am a “survivor”. Are you??