How meeting others who'd also survived cancer changed the way I viewed being labeled a cancer survivor and why I now embrace it as a patient.
I am one of the one million colon cancer survivors in the U.S. and an advocate for survivor stories. But I've not always worn this badge so openly or proudly. I think a lot of survivors, of any trauma, can relate. Although surviving cancer is typically viewed as heroic in our culture now, this wasn't always the case.
In some communities, cancer is still viewed as a sign of God's punishment or a plague. Although I didn't carry this kind of shame for cancer in my situation, I still didn't enjoy being called a "survivor" at first. I didn't feel it was accurate until doctors declared I was "cancer free."
Even when it was pronounced I had "no evidence of disease," survivorship didn't sit well with me. I compared myself to others who faced more chemo, radiation and surgeries than I did - those with treatment plans that did not end. They were the survivors - not me. I didn't like the new identity.
Who is a Survivor?
When I began to meet others who proudly identified as survivors and shared their survivor stories with me, my views about being labeled a cancer survivor began to change. It felt like I uncovered the true meaning of the word.
From cancer to abuse, devastation and attack—a survivor is someone who's lived through trauma. To simply identify as a "survivor" is often a victory in and of itself.
One who remains alive and continues to function during and after overcoming a serious hardship or life-threatening disease. In cancer, a person is considered to be a survivor from the time of diagnosis until the end of life.
Once I learned the definition of a cancer survivor, I found acceptance. It became healing, in a way, that from the moment of my diagnosis until the end of my life, a survivor I will be.
The Importance of Survivor Stories
Today, I embrace being called and labeled a cancer survivor. It's how I often introduce myself. To say, I'm a survivor," to me, means, "I have a story." Putting words to that story and writing Blush, my memoir, was incredibly healing. Not only that, but I've found that as survivors open up about their stories, lives change.
The power of one story
I can't count how many people have sent me messages with questions about poop, GI doctors and colon cancer ever since I started telling my story, beginning with being Miss October in the 2009 Colondar. I've seen friends get colonoscopies and other cancer survivors get resources and support because they knew they could ask me, and I knew how to help.
Stories from survivors unlock freedom in others.
I've also found that when lectures and sermons don't reach people, storytelling will. Stories carry a unique "memorability factor." When someone is vulnerable and shares a personal account, we often remember it. It connects to something deep inside us.
When that experience mirrors our own, and the storyteller is walking in healing and freedom, it unlocks something in those who are listening. The shared experience shows us we're not alone. And from that place, the work of healing begins.
We Need Survivor Stories
If you're a survivor, you're not alone. I'm sorry for the pain of what happened to you and I pray you've found help and healing. If you're not ready to share about your experience yet, that's OK. It can take years before a survivor is ready to share.
But if thoughts of courage are rising up in you and you think you're ready to go, run quickly. Be brave. Speak confidently. I guarantee that someone needs to hear you.
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