Soul Letters for the Cancer Sojourner, #18 Cancer Winners and Losers, Fighters and Survivors

One of the hardest things about surviving cancer is realising you can’t actually take much credit for it.

I know this flies directly in the face of the “cancer hero” myth, but it’s true. Let’s just be honest – when it comes to cancer there are only two possible outcomes, and cancer survivors by default end up with the only outcome which ever requires an explanation.

And survivors are asked for the explanation for how we survived cancer whether we have one or not.

And if we don’t have one, someone else is sure to provide us with one they just happen to have handy.

Because it’s assumed we “won our fight against cancer” just because we’re still alive and didn’t die.

And the ones who aren’t here to provide an explanation are said to have “lost their battle”.

Because folks generally assume we who get well again are the winners, and the ones who didn’t are – losers?

Despite the cliche, it just doesn’t work that way.

We all go in determined to fight cancer. But not all the fighters survive.

And not everyone who starts out fighting keeps on fighting, and not all the ones who stop fighting die when they do.

Not everyone who gets well again did so because they fought harder than someone who died. Some give up fighting, and live to tell about it.

Some fight and fight and fight, and go down fighting, and don’t get up again.

And just as many die fighting as live having given up fighting.

Fighting cancer, as it turns out, doesn’t really make a lot of difference to the outcomes. You still only get one of the two regardless of how much fighting you do, and how hard you do it.

Despite this, we still we talk about people who survived cancer as having done something clever or praiseworthy, and people who die from cancer as having given in, been defeated, or just plain old lost their battle with cancer.

—–

So as a survivor, people ask me a lot “So, what did you do?”

image credit: iStockphoto

image credit: iStockphoto

They want to know what I did to survive cancer, because I’m still alive, so clearly whatever I did worked. Naturally, everyone wants a solution to cancer that works.

Truth is, I don’t take any credit for getting physically well again. I did what I was told. I gave up fighting, because I didn’t understand what fighting cancer actually meant, when all I did was lay around and do what others told me and allowed people to do things to me they said would get rid of cancer. I don’t think I did fight cancer, and yet, here I am. I do, however, consider myself a cancer survivor.

Surviving cancer for me wasn’t about not dying, although I certainly didn’t want to die – surviving was about not letting cancer kill me in all the other ways it had the potential to, other ways which had not much to do with whether I would stay in this world or leave it. I figured when it came to actually dying, I’d just cross that bridge when I came to it.

Surviving is something completely different from not dying of cancer.

Surviving for me means having the courage to change the way I was living my life, because I believed cancer came about as a result of choices I’d made I had no business choosing, and paths I’d walked down I had no business walking down. Nothing to do with not dying.

Surviving means getting help for my crippling fear and anxiety – the legacy of being misdiagnosed for seven months then thrown into treatment four hundred kilometres away from my home and family less than a week after I was diagnosed. Again, not not dying.

Surviving means acknowledging my marriage wasn’t going to do likewise, and reminding myself I’d been alone and in pain before, and I could damn-well do it again if I had to.

Surviving means watching almost everyone I met while I was sick, and many, many more in the years that followed, fight, and not live while I lived on.

Surviving means being absolutely determined not to allow the thing which almost killed me define me, or be the most interesting thing which ever happened to me.

Surviving means making sure people don’t consider me a winner just because I didn’t die of cancer.

Surviving also means making sure people don’t talk about all my friends who died from cancer as losers just because they aren’t here to talk about all the ways they fought and survived and won.

*****

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