The first time someone called me a “Cancer Survivor” I recoiled in horror. It was a badge of honor that I was supposed to wear proudly, but instead it gave me the willies. “Survivor” signified only two options; being alive or being dead. My mother was a Skin Cancer and Breast Cancer “Survivor” but Ovarian Cancer revoked her title the day she passed away.
Many patients feel connected to the term, they feel like “WARRIORS”; which they are. In no way am I trying to diminish that. For me, the term didn’t fit and I had to find a new way to cope with my cancer diagnosis.
The question became, “What else can you call a Cancer Patient when they finish treatment?” My fellow cancer comrade, Nora, and I came up with “Graduate.” We are “Cancer Graduates.”
I spent the next 6 months refining the term. Why Cancer Graduate?
For me, there is a moment of recognition when talking to someone and finding out they also went through a cancer diagnosis. Instantly, we connect. It is the same moment of recognition when you find out someone went to the same university. “You went to CancerU, too? What campus?”
You ask what major they had. “I majored in Breasts, you majored in Prostate! How crazy.”
We reminisce about the parties where we had too many cocktails and were throwing up.
We compare courses; surgery, chemo, radiation.
There is a camaraderie…an understanding.
When we graduate some people become Alumni Donors-going to the games, sporting the team t-shirts and bumper stickers-while others move on only mentioning it in passing when they meet fellow alumni.
Imagine what the cancer experience would be like if we walked in with that same attitude as going away to college. Florida State University had a huge impact on my life, shaping who I am today, but it doesn’t define me. We enter college with the main goal of learning and we ask ourselves, “How can I use this knowledge to help the world, to help myself, and to change the future?”
I knew college was going to be difficult and expensive. I struggled but did it with an open heart and excitement. I found where to have fun, made life long friends, gained 15 lbs and cut my hair.
Sometimes when we think we are done with school, life happens and we have to go back for a Masters or PhD.
We enter cancer knowing it is going to be a struggle but at the same time curious about what we will learn. As Viktor Frankl said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves” and “between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Going to WAR carries a heavy emotional burden filled with images of death and destruction. Fear and Anger are powerful ways to propel oneself to action but over time can become overwhelming and difficult to bear. By changing our view of cancer from a war to be waged to an educational experience, it allows us to change our feelings of fighting to perseverance, fear to curiosity, pain to growth. It becomes lighter.
I am proud to be a “Cancer Graduate” and I can’t wait to share what I learned with the world.
What will you do with your degree?