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's still viewed as a sign of God's punishment or a plague.
Although I didn't carry immense shame 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. Plus, I didn't want 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 began to change. And 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, I fully accepted that from the moment of my diagnosis until the end of my life, a survivor I will be.
The Importance of Survivor Stories
To be a survivor is to have a story. To put together coherent words and sentences that divulge the details of pain and trauma takes a lot of courage.
While not all survivor stories will be well received, and although there's a greater risk to share some more than others, it's worth pushing back on the fear, doubt and shame that try to silence us. Why?
Once our fingers hit the keyboard or our mouths begin to speak, lives change.
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 are powerful keys that unlock freedom in others.
Unlike lectures and sermons, storytelling holds a unique "memorability factor." When we hear someone's personal account, we often remember it. If it mirrors parts of our own, we instantly connect. It changes us to realize we're not alone.
So, what should survivors do?
- If you're a survivor with a story untold, first, my heart goes out to you. I hope one day, you'll find the courage to share. There is a risk in being so vulnerable (make sure you first share in a safe place). But as you open up, I pray you'll experience the rewards outweigh all of those fears and risks.
- If you're a survivor already sharing, keep it up, my friend. I guarantee someone out there needs to hear you.