Two and half years ago, I wrote a blog post about the words we use to describe ourselves after a cancer diagnosis. I wrote that I was uncomfortable with being called a “survivor.” This was my thinking at the time:
It takes quite a bit of confidence to describe yourself as a “survivor” of cancer. It’s planting your flag in the stuff of the universe and declaring that you’re on the other side, on dry land. I don’t have that confidence yet, and I’m avoiding declarations under the theory that my reticence will hide me from the universe. It’s harder for the universe to slap me again if it can’t find me.
It has been a long two years, with lots of ups and downs. I’ve been through several cystoscopies and got the “all clear.” During one, the doc had to take a biopsy and I had to wait for results. Sometimes I think waiting is the definitive experience of having cancer.
Nevertheless, today, I am ready to plant my flag, raise my head, and look out into the vast space of the universe and say, “I am here. I am a survivor.” For better or worse, I’ve had the good luck and the great privilege to survive and to be healthy.
Last month, I went to the Cancer Support Center’s block party for survivors. At the Center, I am surrounded by people who embrace the word and concept of survivorship. Some of them are still in treatment. Some have been “all clear,” like me for some time. Some have metastatic disease.
It has been such a privilege to be taken in by these people, to be counted in their number. Every time I walk through the doors, I feel as if I’m being hugged by the very building. Almost every time, someone actually does hug me.
At the block party, the staff had made a giant ribbon for survivors to sign. The face of my friend, Mary Kay who died just over a year ago, was clearly in my mind when I wrote that I promised to live my life fully to honor those who had died.
I’ve written about Mary Kay quite a few times (here and here) in this blog because meeting her has been one of the great privileges of my life. Up until the day she died, Mary Kay celebrated being alive and invested herself in what mattered.
I don’t know why people change or how that change happens. I do know that my willingness to claim survivorship has something to do with Mary Kay and something to do with gratitude. I feel somehow that embracing myself as a survivor is a debt I owe.
I owe this debt to those who are struggling through treatments and surgeries, whose bodies are bearing the weight of cancer’s burden. To miss the chance express gratitude and to claim what is most obviously true would be an insult.
I saw the sun rise this morning. I am here. I am alive. I am a survivor.
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