She is alive. Although her doctors said
there was nothing to be done, she is home,
planting her summer garden, is not dead
and plans to eat everything she has grown…
She will live beyond the harvest and what will not grow
is her tumor, its flowers held captive
and still beneath her heart. Only the live
wire of her will separates her now from
the future…it will come
sooner or later, but this is her time
to cultivate and seed. She is alive.
(From: “Seed,” by Floyd Skloot, in The Cancer Poetry Project, V.1, 2001)
At first I was afraid, I was petrified …Remember the 1979 hit, “I will survive,” by Gloria Gaynor? Decades later, it remains one of the most famous of disco songs and singer Gaynor’s single biggest hit. In 1981, I nearly wore out my vinyl recording of it, a gift from a friend as I struggled with traumatic loss and becoming a single mother of two daughters. Night after night, as my children slept, I retreated to the living room, turned on the stereo, and as Gaynor belted out her lyrics, danced wildly around the room in the dark, trying, for all I was worth, to believe that I, too, would survive: And I grew strong and I learned how to get along…
We all must learn to survive the hardships that life presents, whether loss, life-threatening illness, trauma and hardship. For those who must face a diagnosis of cancer, survival dominates each day: surviving the surgeries, treatments, and, hopefully, the cancer itself. The term “survivor” has become part of the cancer lexicon and defines anyone living with cancer, terminal or not. Yet it is a term that can describe anyone at different times in our lives. The definition of “survivor” in The Oxford American Dictionary is “a person remaining alive after an event in which others have died,” such as those 9/11 survivors or those who survived the sinking of the Titanic. It is also a term that the Oxford defines as “a person who copes well with difficulties in… life,” practically synonymous with being human.
A few years ago, as I was preparing for a “Writing Through Cancer” session at Scripps Green Cancer Center, Nadia, living with metastatic breast cancer, arrived early and quietly handed me an envelope. “Wait to open it until everyone arrives,” she said. A short time later, as everyone was seated, I opened N.’s card, surprised to see the words, “Happy Birthday” on the front of it. It wasn’t my birthday or N’s. “Wait and see,” she said. “Everyone will have a birthday sometime.” I opened the card and that’s when we heard Gloria Gaynor’s belting out “I will survive.” Everyone in the room burst out laughing. Nadia smiled. “We’re all survivors,” she said. Indeed we are.
What ignites our will to survive and helps us cope and keep going? It’s different for all of us and yet, so much the same. Hope is surely one of those things that keeps us going. The support of friends and loved ones are also important to our will to survive. I remember the December day in 2008 when my physician came to the hospital where I had been taken for observation and a battery of tests after passing out and collapsing on the sidewalk. “We think it’s your heart,” she said, her gentle segue into the preliminary results of my tests. I stared at her in disbelief and panic.
“Not my heart!” I cried. “But I do all the right things.” Tears filled my eyes. “I can’t die yet,” I sobbed. “I have a grandson ready to be born in two months. I have to be there.” The cardiologist arrived a short time later, and in a manner calm and reassuring, explained that I had heart failure, and as I began to cry, quietly smiled and said, “you’re going to live a long time, Sharon,” and we’ll make sure of that.” Two months later, I held Nathan in my arms minutes after his birth. Nathan, despite the love I have for all three grandchildren, has, perhaps, his grandmother’s heart most firmly in his grasp.
Ann, a beloved Scripps group member who died from metastatic cancer, demonstrated the courage and determination to live fully for as long as she could, filling her days with family, friends, travel, and joy. She was determined to be on hand for her first grandchild’s birth, even though the odds were against her. A month before her death, she was present for his birth and able to hold him in her arms for the time she had left. I have no doubt that his impending arrival strengthened her will to live and experience the joy of his arrival.
During a session I led at the Stanford Cancer Center several years ago, I posed the question to the group of cancer writers: “What keeps you intent on surviving cancer?” Ali, who has since recovered from colon cancer and now leads the Stanford group, wrote a poem entitled, “Why I Need to Survive,” using the words of her children, (who were quite young at the time):
Mommy, the trees look like boogers on sticks.
Mommy, can we walk to the sunset?
Mommy, how did God make the ocean?
Mommy, next time will you be my mommy?
Because I don’t want the other mommies.
I only want you.
John, another of the writers from my former Stanford group, survived acute lymphoblastic leukemia for a full five years after his diagnosis, intent on living as long as he possibly could. He wrote poignantly, often humorously, and honestly about his cancer battle in the Stanford group and later, on his blog. A year before his death, he sent me an essay titled “What I’ve Learned,” summarizing lessons learned during his cancer journey, ones that portrayed his will to survive despite a terminal disease. Among the many bits of wisdom gained during his illness, he reminded us that survival, no matter how lengthy, is about living fully, for as long as we have. Among his survival tips were:
- Work at what you love…
- Travel light.
- Do what the doctors tell you.
- Offer support when you can and it will come back to you when you need it. ·
- Cherish the ones you cherish.
- In the end, all your physical beauty and prowess will leave you. You must still love that person in the mirror
- We all will die eventually, so find a way to face death without fear. Don’t dwell on death, but enjoy each day as best you can.
This week, explore the topic of survival.
- Why do you need to survive?
- What life difficulties, illness or heartbreak have you overcome or endured?
- What keeps you going?
- What ignited your will, that indomitable human spirit that refuses to give up or give in?