For 14 years now, I’ve been living cancer-free! Living, thriving, and celebrating every year gave me reason to call each September birthday “Life Day.” But even after experiencing all the great joys of survivorship, there is a bit of silent uneasiness most of us don’t care to talk about: the fear of the disease returning.
After all this time, I can’t think of more appropriate words to describe cancer than to call it what it is: the most human of natural disasters. Even though the official meaning of “natural disaster” involves Mother Nature – floods, earthquakes, hurricanes – the second half of the definition befits us: “…that causes great damage or loss of life.” I don’t like it, as many of us go on to enjoy productive, normal, and happy lives. But the C-word does loom like an unforeseen, uninvited visitor that can surface on its own ugly timeline.
For those of us who have triumphed over the beast, we are called “survivors.” But similar to most warriors, the battle is just that – a triumphant fight we won. We celebrate our victory, however, the enemy is not officially slain. Even after one-, five-, or ten-year benchmarks of cancer survivorship, we never really feel cured. How we handle life after cancer is up to us.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I fought and won my battle. My dear friend, Sheri, said to me, “Maybe you survived so that you could be strong for others who are suffering and are not so strong.” At that time, neither one of us had much pain or suffering, or many health issues; the cancer threw us way off our well-balanced lives. But that simple sentence stayed with me, and I thought about what she said for a long time – even now. Although I temporarily withdrew from public, avoiding writing, talking, or discussing the cancer, it was friends, family, and fellow survivors who helped me out of my funk.
I eventually joined the American Cancer Society and threw myself into doing everything possible to fight the disease, to educate others and ensure a future for my daughters in a world that could be cancer-free. Helping others removed the focus from myself, replacing sadness and fear with purpose and hope. Little by little, my natural tendencies toward charity and compassion turned into strength and courage, enough to approach a stranger at church who had been recently diagnosed and offer a listening ear. Or letting people give my number to someone struggling with the disease who needed support. Or speaking in front of audiences, first small then large, about ways to combat this centuries-old phenomenon.
One of the most impactful moments came when I was invited to speak at a UCLA Cancer Research Reception where students, faculty, and staff gathered to hear cancer researcher, Dr. Timothy Daskivich, and myself tell our side of the cancer story. He gave a very clinical view of what happens behind the scenes before any discoveries or technologies come to fruition, while I presented my personal cancer journey.
Afterward, someone snapped our picture and, as we do in these days of instant imaging, we reviewed the photo on the spot. Surprisingly, it revealed our mutual admiration for one another in our exuberant smiles! We both realized what a rare moment we had just shared – not only with each other, but also with the audience. There he was, working at the onset of technology, research, and future discoveries, and there I was, the recipient of clinical trials, failures, and successes, and a living testament to his years of research along with his colleagues.
After every speech, there are those who comment and share their stories. But that night was different. There were heartfelt, personal remarks from people indicating that they, too, recognized the connection where a doctor and patient were able to thank one another in public, despite meeting for the first time that night.
My friend Sheri was right. I was able to offer empathy to those who needed it, as someone who has been there. What I was unprepared for were the gifts that these “needy” people gave back to me. Each story, triumph, and battle won or lost gave me something special I can barely put into words. They provided me with a treasure chest of infinite hope and, after 14 years, I understand why cancer infected me and let me live.
For however many years I have left, I hope my acts carry on a chain of human compassion that never ends. I also hope every person reading this does the same!
Abella Carroll is a freelance writer