What does it mean to be a cancer survivor?

Defining my survivorship

Thanks to Twitter and Facebook, I have connected with a wide group of breast cancer friends all across the globe. Many are bloggers like me and reading their words about their journey with breast cancer inspires me, makes me want to be better, live better and just enjoy life. I recently read an old post on one of those blogs... and it really made me think for a long time.

I am a breast cancer survivor.

Before my diagnosis I thought those words were just carefully crafted branding terms... I did not realize that they actually provide power and strength to the people who wear them proudly. There are a lot of people who have completed cancer treatment and do not choose to accept the label of "survivor". They have their reasons and because everyone's journey is uniquely theirs, I respect that.

But Nicole... has warmly embraced the talisman of "breast cancer survivor" in her world.

Here's why:

I don't care where I am... or what I'm doing... whether I am laughing with tears streaming down my face or quietly reflecting and walking the dog... my breast cancer experience is with me. It only takes a millisecond for me to shift gears and still feel the plastic of the reclining chairs at the cancer center where I took my chemotherapy for months and months. It only takes an absent-minded stroke across my port scar on my chest to remind me that I am battle-scarred.

I don't wear pink every day, and I don't wear my pink ribbon pin every day... but without any labels, or brands or colors... I have on invisible armor that says... I'm here because I fought to be here.

I have no idea what it is like to be a military veteran. I have no idea what it is like to experience war, to see that sort of death and destruction up close and personal. But I can tell you what it feels like to walk into a large and crowded room with seats that remind you of recliners but slightly different, slightly less comfortable. To see pouches of medicine hanging on steel poles beside every chair... and to see tubes going into the chests or arms of old people, young people, black people, white people, Asian people, latino... all sick and trying to get well.

I can tell you what it feels like to walk into that room and realize that your learning curve has been so sharp that you can almost tell how far along someone is in their treatment just by looking at their hair (or lack of), the color of their skin and the way that they move. There is a look... a knowing that cancer patients and survivors share and recognize almost immediately. I will never look at a chest scar the same way. I will always wonder what happened, how they are feeling now.

I have gained empathy in levels that I never could have imagined before this. I have also learned patience and courage.

I am comfortable with my fears now. I know that they can't kill me... though they distract me from the bigger picture, the larger efforts of my life. I know that I can rest with them or push past them... the choice is always mine.

Honestly speaking... some days I curl up with my fears and just explore them. And other days, I simply don't give them room to latch on to anything in my mind.

In case you wanted to know:

“A cancer survivor,” ... “is a term used to describe anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer as well as caregivers and loved ones of those diagnosed with the disease.” The term survivorship was first coined in 1985, but was expanded to include family members and caregivers since “no one can survive cancer alone.”
...the importance of a strong support system because as a cancer survivor, “the most benign things will scare you to death.” She relayed a story about how she recently thought a rough spot on her neck may have been a skin cancer metastasis, when it was only a curling iron burn.  (taken from Journeying beyond breast cancer)

When I met with my therapist some months ago to catch up and check in and just make sure that I wasn't losing my mind... she and I talked about post-traumatic stress disorder. These days, we hear a lot about PTSD in relation to the soldiers returning from war. But those of us who have battled and scrapped and cried and fought to get through cancer treatment... often have to deal with this disorder too.

When you're jumpy or constantly anxious... always worried or concerned that every little thing could mean a recurrence of your cancer... you could very well be struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.

In the beginning, it was very difficult for me to accept the label of survivor. I felt like a fraud because I couldn't be a survivor if I was still in treatment. A survivor was someone (in my eyes) who had gone through the fire and come out on the other side. While I was riding through the storm, I felt like I had no name... I was just "me" struggling to get back to normal. And now that I've sort of arrived back at normal (though honestly, it feels like anything but that)... I can accept and even feel some joy that I am a survivor. I willingly wear my pink survivor t-shirts in public now. I am comfortable talking with strangers about what I've been through, what my scars are from (though not always).

For me... the label SURVIVOR is truly a talisman with sacred powers. When I think of myself in those terms, I am reminded of the strength that I had and the strength that millions of other people have to dig deep within themselves and simply push forward.

I had to take a few days off from the blog because I've been hearing hard news lately of survivors who have lost their final battles with cancer. And there is no describing how much it hurts me every time someone I know tells me that someone they loved is gone because of cancer. The pain of loss to cancer is a deep one. I suspect (and hope) that as more time elapses it won't hurt as much, won't slow me down as often. But honestly, it's like constantly hearing bullets whizzing by. You keep wondering when it will be your day and your friends and family feeling that deep pain.

But, I shake it off after awhile... and I pick up my mental talisman of SURVIVOR and I push forward. So, this post is my push... I know that millions of us are struggling with this disease right now. I know that a lot of us won't finish this year. But I know that until its my time... I will be here. And that's just the way that it is.

What does it mean to be a survivor?

It means that you are frightened. It means that you are optimistic. It means that you are realistic. It means that your faith is deeper, your connection to the rest of the world is deeper. Things in your body may be different... which changes who you are but it is a refining of who you can be. It... is your new state of being. It means that you (or someone you love) went through hell and came out on the other side. You're different, but you're better in a lot of ways.


Just saying it brings me a little more peace than I had a few moments ago.

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