What Does It Mean to Be a Survivor

As we sweep away the final remnants of pink that have come to symbolize October, I realize that I am 3 years past my chemo treatment that started October 16, 2008. I'm still here – that makes me a "survivor" – but what does that mean?

I don’t know why some of us survive and others do not, no matter how fiercely they may fight. There are those that face devastating battles, which leaves me feeling I am in no position to complain. My case was merely a case of sniffles in comparison.

To be a cancer survivor means I have been blessed with another day. It doesn’t mean I’m safer than anyone else. It doesn’t mean the risk is over. It doesn’t mean another cancer can’t attack at any moment.

I am angry that I “did everything right” and got cancer anyways, but that doesn’t minimize my appreciation of the endless miracles in my life.

Being a survivor does mean I have a greater respect for life. I was given a second chance, and I am grateful for that with every breath. And I educate – even nag – others to trust their body, recognize when something is not quite right, don’t delay testing and get screened regularly because we don’t really know who is at risk or why.

There is a lovely line from a short prayer that asks, “May the stream of my life flow into the river of eternal love.” I don't remember where I first found it, but it touched me so deeply that it forever surpassed the multitude of prayers I was forced to memorize in school.

It reminds me that moments of our life are like the infinite droplets in a stream, mostly unnoticed as they rush toward the river of experience that is our life. But every now and then we are splashed with a moment that becomes an indelible memory, part of the story that ultimately defines us.

When cancer flooded my life, it was not without significant splashing moments.

The moment in 2005 when I found “a lump.” The tiny, hard kind you read about in all the “how to do a breast self exam” flyers.

The kind you hope you’ll never find.

The moment when realized I was not separate from the women around me, uniformed in our blue exam gowns as we sat in the radiology waiting room, trying to pretend it was just a routine office visit. United by the fear that our bodies may have turned against us, we waited.

I wondered which of us would remember that day as “The Day I Found Out…”

The moment when my tests came back clear – when they said it was simply scar tissue.

I felt released, relieved and invincible.

And three years later, after a routine mammogram, when the nurse brought me to a consult room, where I waited in the eerie glow of light boxes and diagnostic equipment.

The doctor entered with a warm smile, sleek black hair, and looked much too young to be giving me advice. He said it still looked like scar tissue, but had changed a little and I might want to consider a biopsy.

I was afraid a needle biopsy would hurt and I wanted to stop worrying about the lump. Put me to sleep, take out the whole damn thing. Let’s be done with it.

I remember a groggy post-op grin to my smiling surgeon who said everything went great, see you in 2 weeks. At the follow up appointment I actually asked him to cut to the chase because I was late for work. Exam, smiles, it was healing beautifully. Yeah, yeah, let me out of here.

No one suspected cancer, none of the tests hinted at malignancy. I had no family history of breast cancer. My family’s life expectancy is 100. I had a healthy lifestyle and a positive attitude.

No cancer for me. Can I go now?

He looked down at my file. “Well, it’s cancer.”

The stream of my life roared over me like a tsunami. He patiently delivered his speech on the early diagnosis, favorable prognosis and treatment options.

All that tumbled around my mind was, “blah blah blah it’s cancer am I going to die? Will I lose my hair? Who will see my patients? How will I pay my overhead?"

I remember the look on my husband’s face that night when I told him, his silence through my chattering about the "early diagnosis and good prognosis."

I had to keep talking to break through that “blah blah blah it’s cancer are you going to die?" I wanted to protect him and everyone I loved from any pain or fear.

To hear the words, “It’s breast cancer” (or any other life-threatening diagnosis) transforms your life. Until that moment, there is no way to even guess how you would respond.

You only know will have no choice but to pack for your journey into the unknown, armed with love and support. And be confident that your guides will appear with the answers whenever you have a need.

Life through breast cancer was surreal. Every day presented a new challenge as my body shed one thing or another or erupted with an unexpected symptom.

Yet I’d look up and appreciate the sky, with gratitude for the day. I’d more deeply love the people around me. It was painfully clear that I darn well better, because none of us know how long we have to enjoy this life.

I discovered solace in my garden, and metaphorical wisdom in killing off the weeds and replanting new life. I found hope in watching the cycle of death and renewal.

The health field is my life work, and I thought my vision was expansive. Breast cancer was a humbling event; I realized how little I knew, even about my own body.

Suddenly there were floodlights that brought a depth of knowledge, compassion and empathy that would never have been so amplified had I not been faced with this detour in my life.

I've often been told not to get too stuck in my head with all the intellectual stuff – and to deepen the connection between my heart and intuition.

There was probably a simpler way to work that out besides getting cancer, but here I am. I feel blessed that I was guided to remarkable teams of doctors and nurses. And the angels in human and other forms that inspired me to find solutions along the way.

Cancer taught me that I am vulnerable, mortal, and no one is invincible. If I had the choice of never having had cancer or having it, I would accept it, although I truly hope my lesson was learned and I don’t have to repeat it.

The benefit I could never have foreseen is that cancer connected me as lifetime member of what I call the Reluctant Sisterhood. Absorbed into a network of survivors that inspired me to believe this could bring me greater strength, we pool our hard earned wisdom to share with those who will unfortunately but inevitably follow.

We probably would not have chosen this path. Yet we are eagerly drawn into this collective conscious and unconscious network of healing. This is not limited to breast cancer, nor to women; anyone with a need to heal is embraced into the circle of those who have traveled it ahead of you.

This journey has been remarkable, and even the pain and nausea and frustration pulsated with the adventure of life itself that makes me more grateful for every day.

I have an extraordinary husband and family. I learned over and over how incredible my friends are, and every day was like falling in love all over again.

They will be there with unfaltering support through any perilous journey, surrounding me with the love, prayers, sparkly vibes, decorated heads, cards, emails, and most of all the laughter and heartfelt warmth that makes it so easy for me to keep a positive attitude.

I feel gratitude every moment for how they enriched my life beyond my imagination.

I used to believe, "Everything happens for a reason." Then I go
t cancer, and entered a family of thousands of cancer patients of all ages. And I can find no reason for all this suffering.

Now I believe stuff happens for no reason. But what I do believe is that what we do with that "stuff" defines who we are. I believe we are incredibly loving beings, with instincts not only to preserve our own survival, but to ease the suffering of others.

Whether you knit a cap, send a card, call, tweet or discover a cure, your role in another’s healing is equally important. Our strengths arise from our ability to sense the needs of others and our resiliency in the face of adversity to find solutions that will ease their pain.

I’d like to share the rest of that short prayer, or maybe it’s a poem or a wish.

God made the rivers to flow.

They feel no weariness, they cease not from flowing;
they move as swiftly as the birds in the air.

May the stream of my life flow into the river of eternal love.

Loosen the bonds of sin that bind me.

Let not my work be ended before its fulfillment.
and let not the thread of my song be cut while I sing.

(Rig Veda)


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