Wednesday, August 24, 2016

On Being a Cancer Survivor

I recently received an engaging email from a close friend who has been going through her own journey with cancer, parallel with mine. Though we have different diseases with different treatments and prospects, it's nonetheless been a time for deep reflection for both of us.

She wrote:

Just catching up on your blog and Caring Bridge after a challenging week. I'm so glad to hear things are progressing in good directions and that you are home! "Cancer survivor" is a label I have not yet become comfortable with myself, partly, I think, because of the uncertainty; partly because it seems strange to add badges of pride when I'm trying to learn to be more humble; and partly because "cancer treatment survivor" feels more apt in my case (and yours has been and will be much more grueling); but in any case may it be an accurate descriptor of you (and me) for many, many years to come.

This is a provocative topic for me, and I think there are a number of threads swirling around it, comprising the yarn ball of my thoughts:

o  It helps me to hold a positive image of my future that is not about whitewashing. I need to simultaneously own that I have been very sick and that a positive attitude going forward is an essential part of my healing—that one attains or sustains “health" by working on many fronts, attitude being one of them.

On the one hand, embracing the label of "cancer survivor" may be seen as whistling past the cemetery (acting braver than I feel). On the other, I think it's good for me to not forget that I'll have cancer the rest of my life—however long that is. Axiomatically, I'll be a survivor until I'm not. Meanwhile, all actions I take from now forward are those of someone who has cancer and has been working diligently to not have my blood pressure spike when I think about it; to find ways to be vital and healthy anyway.

o  I need to make peace with cancer in my body. I don’t want to ignore it and I don’t want to be obsessed with it. I want to accept it as part of the package of who Laird is today. I’m a person who is not done living and still has a lot to contribute in the world. Today though, unlike two years ago, I am a person with cancer and I need to make choices going forward that keep that in perspective. I do not know how much time I have left (do any of us?) and want to choose consciously how I apportion my time. It probably means more time with friends and loved ones, and less as a process professional, and that’s OK. (I think of it as a late-in-life course correction.) The key is wanting to be more conscious and the label helps me maintain vigilance about my choices.

o  As a professional facilitator, I am always looking for additional ways to bridge to people, especially outliers. I’ve come to understand that my history of good health has, ironically, been a barrier with some folks (how could anyone who’s been that blessed possibly understand what I’m going through?) even as it’s helped me maintain a heroic work schedule (until I collapsed in December). Thus, being a cancer survivor gives me another point of engagement, that I fully intend to use where applicable.

o  So much of what we identify as hard in life has to do with fear, and I’ve learned that by shining the light in dark corners fear is diminished. Because I want to make it easier to talk about fear, it’s incumbent upon me to take the first step. Thus, my cancer becomes an opportunity, and the label is an invitation.

o  You are right, I think, to point out that it's more accurate to say that we've survived our treatments than that we've survived our cancers, the remnants of which remain in our systems with uncertain futures. That said, it is not for me to tell another whether it is a label they should wear. 

Long ago I made the choice to be a public person. Not only does that mean that I ply my crafts in the public eye (as a public speaker, as a professional facilitator, as a writer), it also means that I have committed to live my life with a high degree of transparency and a willingness to explain how I got to hold the positions and viewpoints that I do. (If you're not interested, don't read my blog; no one's arm is being twisted.)

It means that I'm willing to share details about my personal life that many others consider private—not because I'm the arbiter of where the boundary should be or because I'm an emotional voyeur or a drama queen, but because I am often in the position of asking others to be vulnerable with me and I need to walk my talk.

Right now, cancer is a big deal in my life. While it's not going to stop me going forward and it may not remain the first article above the fold in the biweekly publication of What's Going on with Laird, it's a compelling complication and an entrée to the Pandora's Box of what remains of my life. Make no mistake about it; I am going to open the lid. And I'm going to write about what I find—warts, spiritual revelations, clay feet, and all. 

I can't not do it.


Elke said...

I have a deep trust in your tenacity, and am happy to be able to read your thoughts again.
Fear has been showing up for me lately, especially my first solo trip abroad. Of course enormously different from a life-threatening disease, but fear is fear, and one must decide not to stop because of it, regardless of its reason (or lack thereof).

Ann Shrader said...

I love you, Laird!

Liz E said...

In the last few years I've come to realize that to be the person I want to be, I need to be more comfortable with vulnerability. Watching you do it, seemingly effortlessly, is very inspiring. Please, keep examining and reporting -- both for yourself and for all of us!