"You must be so happy that you beat cancer, right?"
It's the question that all of us have been asked, that none of us have a good answer to, and that may unite us more than we think.
Any survivor can relate -- once the 'C' word gets in the conversation, you get gawks. You get the stares, the amazement, the bewilderment. Personally, it's usually followed up with a "what type" to which, I naturally oblige with: "brain cancer." As I've found, you'd be hard pressed to find a quicker way to make a conversation run dry.
Nonetheless, the response comes back with "that explains the scars..." motioning toward the sole physical remnants of cancer on my body, a two-inch seam running the length of my hairline and a slight recession in the crown of my head, and always followed by a rushed and awkward- "that is so amazing you're doing OK!"
But am I OK?
On the inside- I'm always asking myself this - "Am I OK? Is today one of the days that I'm proud to be a survivor?" I've been blessed to survive a rare cancer that somehow slipped through statistics. I'm a firm believer in the Big Man upstairs somehow getting me through it all. But, I know that I'm an exception. I don't forsee myself wrapping my head around why, in the name of methotrexate, cisplatin, and cytoxan, my chemo treatments worked. I can't walk into a hospital without thinking that one of the peers I took radiation next to should have strode out instead of me.
Because of this, there has been one overarching lesson I have learned about survivorship: just as every person has a different background and upbringing, the same applies to every person's survivorship. No two stories are the same.
All experiences with cancer may be different. It would be a fault to try and summarize and stereotype our experiences into a lump sum.
"You Must Be So Happy!"
To pigeonhole a survivor in the category of happiness, or use statements such as "you must be so happy" would be an injustice to those who have battled in the same manner as we have, without the favorable outcome. Over the course of five years I've lost more times than I care to remember or look back upon. I've met those who are frustrated, questioning, and bitter about their results, even in surviving. As much as I have rejoiced in being alive and "kicking," I have equally felt the pain and sting of the other side. Happy to be here? Yes. But even happier to honor those that are not.
Herein lies my motivation to do as much as possible to give back to the cancer effort. As much as I struggle personally with my survivorship- daily, it seems- it is a continual reminder that nobody deserves the outcomes that so many of our loved ones face. Just as those who do come back from war would never wish their circumstances on others, we must also pray, hope, and fight to ensure the next child, mother, mentor, girlfriend, father, brother, coach, colleague, sister, or loved one does not have to go to war with the emperor of maladies. If I had advice for those who are trying to relate to cancer survivors, the comparison to post-traumatic stress would be the most applicable. Just as some can be sent overseas to encounter the tragedies of war and can immigrate back home unfazed, an equal amount are never the same.
Cancer Commonalities. I often tell those who have just heard the words of cancer that "once you beat it, you are one up on the rest of the world." Though we may all have different stories of cancer, and it may be a mistake to categorize us in the same manner, we do own the greatest unity ever. We all are one up on the rest of the world.
That's because the one thing we do have in common for certain - using the set of circumstances that we have been given and making the best of it - can be our greatest asset. So when someone asks "you must be so happy that you beat cancer, right?" remember that answering "yes" may not be because now you are "cancer-free"," it may be because now you can comfort another person in their first steps of diagnosis, or shave your head to raise money for research. Now you have a commonality that can literally save other's lives.
So, let's make the most of it to honor those who are not here with us.