Survivors of something

I don’t write a lot about cancer here–not because I don’t have enough to say, but because I have too much.  Like, don’t get me started.  But now it’s on my mind, thanks to some comments from yesterday.  So I’ll say this, and then maybe I won’t discuss cancer again for awhile.

Once my mother died of cancer, getting it myself was my greatest fear.  As horrible as it was, there are now things I fear more. But cancer was enough to teach me some lessons I needed to know.

Yesterday’s post seemed to be about cancer but it really wasn’t.  It was about any crisis–that can happen to anyone.  Cancer happens to be the one I know most about–but you could insert any of the things people deal with–illness, infertility, addictions, accidents, losing a spouse, losing a job.  And unless you’re Mother Teresa, who hasn’t wondered: why is this happening to me?

When I had cancer there was a national organization called “Y-Me?”   I loved that name.  When I heard it for the first time I felt someone out there UNDERSTOOD.  There must be others like me–people who were bitter, and scared, and wished cancer could have happened to someone else.  Just the name alone made me feel better.

Last night when I wrote the post Why Me? I looked up the group, and I found out they changed the name.  Now it’s called Breast Cancer Network of Strength.  I get why they might have done this, but it bothered me.  A name like Y-Me felt real.  Since everyone isn’t the tough and strong and “bring it on” type.   Maybe deep down inside, no one is really the tough and strong type.  Either way, It doesn’t make you feel better if everyone around you is telling you to be strong—when all you feel is whiny and weak.  At least I did.

And while I’m whining..,one other thing.   Sometimes people say they “kicked cancer’s butt.”  Which is great.  But then it sounds like someone who didn’t succeed in kicking cancer’s butt did something wrong.  Which is not great.

Because I am here doesn’t mean I was stronger than someone else, or kicked butt better.  Science doesn’t have all the answers yet, so I’d rather say I was lucky.

Meanwhile I still haven’t gotten to my point yet.  Which is that when you get cancer, you should be allowed to whine a little.  Maybe even a lot.  If you need to.  Expecting yourself to face a crisis like a hero is just not realistic or possible for many people.  I think we all deserve, if we need it, to feel sorry for ourselves sometimes.

And then we need to STOP whining.   Because (and this is finally my point…) I believe it is really important NOT to let yourself feel like a victim.  The victim mode is especially hard to avoid with cancer.  Because you are instantly transformed into one:  swallowed up by the medical system to be poked and prodded.  Helpless and out of control.

I am not an expert or a psychologist–but I think getting out of this mindset definitely takes some attitude adjustment.  I believe it’s essential if you’re fighting a battle against cancer– or maybe a battle of any kind.  The good news is that we all have what we need to do this–we all have a source of inner strength that can bring out the best in people even at the worst of times.

Somewhere inside each of us is an ancestor who faced down a saber tooth tiger.  That survival instinct– so basic, so human– is in the blood and brain of every single person on earth.  All we need is to access it when we most need it.

And once you tap into that core strength, at that moment, you become a survivor.  To me, being a survivor is a state of mind–something to honor and celebrate.  It’s also something you can call upon for the rest of your life.  And you will.   Because we’re all survivors– of something.


Laurence Gonzales, who wrote the book, Deep Survival, also wrote about my survival story in MORE magazine a few years ago.  Someday I’ll write it myself.  His version makes me sound more heroic and brave than I really was. The one part that isn’t accurate is in the first sentence: I never had red hair.

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