I wish I could pinpoint the exact moment I went from “cancer patient” to “cancer survivor.” It’d be nice to post an annual ribbon on Facebook with a triumphant, inspirational message. After all, survivors are done with all the yucky parts of cancer, right? Survivorship is the ultimate “good vibes only” party and I’d like to know when I was invited.
Did I become a survivor when I was diagnosed at 19 with a brain tumor? Was it when I rang that bell after my last radiation treatment? Was it when I took my last chemotherapy pills? Was it when I had to do it all again when my brain stopped cooperating?
After all of these moments, I did not change color or feel a disturbance in The Force; there was no definitive sign that I had somehow passed into a new phase of life. I was still just me, maybe with a little less or more cancer in my brain, but far from “surviving” anything. “Surviving” makes my journey sound much prettier and more resolved than what really happened over and over: I gritted my teeth and did what had to be done. It’s funny to hear cancer muggles refer to survivorship as a kind of neutral zone in a game of Capture the Flag—like, it’s a permanent state that you can enter and hunker down while the war rages around you. In reality, survivorship is much more fluid and less defined than the world would have you think. Instead of a “neutral zone,” survivorship is more like running back to your team after capturing the flag; you accomplished your goal, but are never really out of danger.
But maybe I need to give myself a little more credit. I think we, as cancer people, think so much about where we are in our journeys and what might be ahead that we ignore just how far we’ve come. Sure, I’ll probably go through more valleys, but I can’t let them hide all I’ve done to this point. It’s true that I am a cancer patient, but it’s equally true that I’ve gotten through brain cancer twice. Maybe that meets someone’s definition of “survivor,” but not mine. I’ve gotten through hard things and I know more will come. Are you really a survivor if the battle’s never really over?
I want the world to know that being a cancer survivor is not really an identity—not a permanent one, at least. It’s more like where you live, not a nationality. It’s a fact, but one that doesn’t really reflect anything about you or your story. Any of us could slip into “Cancerworld” at any time.
Life after cancer is not one long celebration or exhale of relief. Life after cancer is picking up the pieces of what you have left and trying to put something together that resembles living. Many of my (always well-meaning) cancer-less friends have asked when I’ll feel normal again. I wish they knew that there isn’t a “normal” anymore. Being a survivor is learning to live in that liminal space between sickness and health and realizing that life’s default mode is not health with moments of sickness. Surviving cancer is recalibrating what you think of as normal. Before cancer, I couldn’t imagine ever being happy with a diet of popcorn and protein shakes. Now, that meal is my JAM.
So, when did I become a survivor? I don’t think it was marked by a scan or bell-ringing (though those things mattered A LOT. I love any excuse to celebrate and eat cake!). I think it was February 24, 2011, the day after my diagnosis. All I did was wake up. I still had cancer, I was still scared, and I still had no clue what would happen, but I opened my eyes on February 24, 2011, to face the day. To me, that’s what survivorship is: just waking up and hoping for the best, one day at a time.