“A cancer survivor? So, you’re in remission?”
Over the past ten years I've been faced with this question countless times but answering it never gets easier. “Well, actually no,” is always the beginning of my response. Given my unique health situation, the answer is complex.
Because there's still cancer in my bloodstream, and I’m still actively being treated with daily chemotherapy, technically I am not in remission (and may never be). For year's, the situation has lead me to examine the subject of "survivorship".
Having not officially “beat” cancer, is my status as a "survivor" tarnished? What does being a survivor mean in the first place?
The formal definition of “survivor” is:
A person who survives (duh), especially a person remaining alive after an event in which others have died.
From what I understand, many people view survivorship as a destination: someone having faced and overcome a certain event granting them a lifetime membership in the Survivor's Club. However, I don’t consider being a survivor a result of a certain success; I believe it’s the reason for it. Like the age-old conundrum of the chicken and the egg, we can ask the same of survivorship: What came first - overcoming an obstacle or being a survivor? I have nothing to say about the chicken and the egg but I do have thoughts on this one:
Most often, being a survivor comes first.
I frequently get praise for having battled cancer, and do NOT get me wrong here – I am humbled and filled with pride each time someone recognizes the battle I have and continue to fight - but what’s important to me is that people understand that it wasn’t cancer that made me a survivor.
Of course, I learned a lot from the experience and continue to be affected by my disease each day. But cancer isn’t what made me tough. It didn’t produce within me the resilience, grit, or the will to live and get through some severely dark times. I possessed those traits before I was diagnosed and those are what allow me to survive.
I suppose it may be a series of events early in life – our environments, upbringing, and experiences – that instill most of our virtues, but from what I’ve experienced, those traits are set early on.
The point here is that whether or not I’m in remission doesn’t decipher whether I’m a survivor. Heck, having cancer doesn't even matter, not to mention how much of it is still lingering in my veins.
What defines us is the way in which we choose to live our lives. It’s the principles we live by and the way we approach and deal with situations, not the outcomes.
We each have our own unique battles. Whether it’s cancer, poverty, negative self-talk, a deep dark secret, issues with body image, anxiety, obesity, a broken home, or a toxic relationship – and while some are more severe than others, we all have something. Though none of us can take full control of our external situations, ie. we can’t control what happens to us, we can all control the ways in which we handle them. I can’t fully control the how the cancer acts (though taking my chemo meds consistently does help, hah), but I can choose how to deal with it.
There are plenty of survivors out there who’ve lost their battles. These individuals were not weak nor did they ever give up; they were simply overcome by science and elements out of their control. But they fought with courage and poise, and that’s what makes them survivors.
And then there are people who have lived through certain experiences but go on with life in a flurry of complaints, moaning and groaning their way through each day. Are they actually surviving? Or merely living?
So, what is a survivor? To me, a survivor is someone who faces their obstacles with bravery and dignity. Someone who doesn't make excuses but takes responsibility for their actions and doesn’t need others’ recognition to feel proud of themselves. Because in their hearts they know what they’ve battled, and that's enough.
Being a survivor isn’t about being “cured”. It’s not about your hair growing back, having a tumor removed, or having successful treatment. It’s about how you live your life. It’s about how you react when faced with adversity and how you face your problems each day. Surviving isn’t overcoming one standalone event and living free of strife thereafter. It’s is an ongoing battle and the willingness to face that fight with grace and pride. No matter what the challenge.
Surviving is a way of life.
Every day we encounter challenges, some ongoing and some new. And the good news is that no matter what their nature, and no matter how one's dealt with challenges in the past, with each new struggle we're given the opportunity to survive. Whether we succeed or fail is dependent on how we choose to react, not whether the issue departs. We can't control our situations, but we ultimately choose whether or not we survive.
I didn't need to beat cancer to be a survivor and neither do you.