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Surviving Survivorhood 

Words like 'winner' and 'loser' are inadequate to the experience of cancer

In March of this year, I was declared five years in remission from stage IV uterine cancer.

Although I'd spent the last several years imagining the dramatic high-five moment with my oncologist and the blow-out party celebrating with friends who supported me through a challenging time, the moment was anti-climactic — if not abruptly disrupted.

Unlike the fantasy, I discovered the good news after being rushed to the hospital with excruciating lower abdominal pains. Because of my recent health history, a scan was ordered and I was told there was no sign of cancer. No bumping fists or victory dances. Just temporary relief — until the bill arrived in the mail. Apparently I had an $8,400 stomachache.

When I arrived home from the ER, I was greeted with a voice mail from my sister informing me my mother began receiving hospice care that afternoon. Diagnosed several years after me, my mom underwent treatment for brain and lung cancer until the treatments were no longer effective. Much of the joy that bubbled to the surface earlier that day fizzled. Immediately I began to grieve the imminent loss of my mother, and to wrestle with the conflicted emotions surrounding my own news.

I was reminded of more than a handful of friends currently undergoing treatment with late-stage cancers. I found myself weighing the pros and cons of sharing my good fortune. I guess this is what some might refer to as survivor guilt — but I don't subscribe to the vernacular of the cancer world. Although the term is used commonly, something about the word survivor ignites an involuntary ground-level shiver whenever issued in my direction.

I don't relate to being a fighter, or a warrior. Nor do I believe this thing called "cancer" is something to be defeated — although I deeply respect everyone's right to approach it in whatever way helps navigate the experience.

The only "strategy" I subscribed to during treatment was to fall in love with everyone in proximity, and to flirt outrageously while developing crushes on every doctor and staff person that laid hands on me. And I was fortunate enough to have an oncologist who was not only open-minded but encouraged me to work with acupuncturists, energy workers, Reiki practitioners, massage therapists, counselors, and anyone who helped me remain calm in the face of a fairly punishing drug regimen.

During treatment there were no soldiers enlisted — although some were veterans of a cancer journey, and familiar with the unpredictable minefield of grief that can erupt without notice. These were the ones who didn't flinch when anxiety momentarily took me hostage, and they were capable of laughing at the unthinkable.

There were those who were willing to sit bedside as I babbled to invisible beings that held court at the end of my bed. And there were the very special few who could talk about death and lean into a conversation about dying without drama — and without making me feel as though if death were my fate, that I would have failed in some profound way.

That I've had friends with similar diagnoses who did not survive is not a reflection of inferiority or their lack of desire to get better. Nor does it convey greater strength or will on my part. I'm not made of tougher stuff than anyone else, and I'm no more a winner than someone else is a loser for having died.

Instead of fighting, I bowed my head in respect and listened to the experience of cancer. For me (and only me) it was a time of reflection and accounting, and it was during this time of quiet vulnerability that I heard and saw things within myself that I'd never encountered before. Although I cannot adequately explain it, I'm not the same person who was diagnosed six years ago. And I have absolutely no idea — not a clue — why I'm still here and others aren't.

It seems typical of our culture to make winners and losers and enlist people for battle. Our divisive political system encourages it; our 24-hour news cycle demands it. And now it seems there is a cancer industry that promotes a language of war that insists there are victims and survivors.

On April 21 at 4:48 a.m. — less than a month after reaching my five-year remission mark — my mother took her last breath. While grieving her absence, I'm currently walking to the edge with several friends and a few who may be facing their final days.

So forgive me if I avert my eyes and feel a self-conscious pang whenever some well-intended person initiates a fist bump while enthusiastically insisting, "You're a survivor!" The grace and the beauty I've witnessed by the supposed losers won't allow me to embrace the separation imposed by declaring myself a winner.

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