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A Round of Applause for Cancer Survivors


Anyone who has ever been a part of a Relay for Life event knows the smiles that show up when we take our victory lap to the cheers of loved ones and other survivors.

In my role as an employee assistance specialist, I do a lot of public speaking in the form of trainings at worksites. I have developed my personal introduction for these events to include the fact that I’m a cancer survivor. I do this for two, admittedly manipulative, reasons, which I actually share with my audience. The first is that experience has taught me that when people learn that I have been through the cancer journey they are nicer to me on their evaluations at the end of the talk. My guess is that the thinking goes along these lines: “Well, he did talk too fast and drifted off topic, but, hey, he survived cancer — excellent presentation!”

The second reason I share this information is that on almost every occasion I get a round of applause. At this point, I will usually comment that it’s nice to be acknowledged for still being alive. I find it a good way to warm of the crowd and get them on my side, even before I start the formal talk about whatever workplace topic I’m addressing.

This points to an interesting phenomenon about this illness; there is a certain celebrity that comes with being a cancer survivor. It’s a strange thing to think about. Normally, we only applaud performers, actors, musicians, comedians or athletes as way to show our appreciation for their particular skill. This is our culturally accepted way for thanking someone who has made us feel good. The notable exception to this rule seems to be politicians, who are often applauded out of either respect or to cue them that it’s time to stop talking.

This raises the question, “What is it that cancer survivors bring to other people that they feel the need to clap their hands in tribute?” My best guess is that it is a combination of the following factors:

  1. Due to the inherent fear in almost everyone about getting cancer, seeing someone who is still around inspires a great sense of hope and they applaud us for being an inspiration.
  2. The knowledge that cancer treatment itself can be trauma-inducing and life-threatening creates a deeps sense of respect and they applaud our courage.
  3. It’s about a close to meeting someone who has come back from the dead as most people will ever get and they applaud our celebrity-like status.

The experience of standing in front of complete strangers, who are clapping and celebrating ('celebrate' being one of the origins of the word celebrity) is so pleasant and comforting that I think that we need to make it a routine part of cancer treatment. How about a round of applause every time we sit in the chemotherapy chair or lie down on the radiation table? How about a rousing dose of it whenever we show up for our regular scans, blood work and X-rays? Finally, how about a victory lap around the oncologists office when we meet cancer survivor milestones?

Anyone who has ever been a part of a Relay for Life event knows the smiles that show up when we take our victory lap to the cheers of loved ones and other survivors. We also know that it’s not the applause itself but the loving energy, care and concern that allows us to celebrate — to assemble to honor — a life lived with cancer. To those who do not have the opportunity to share their survivorship with a cheering crowd, know that I offer you a standing ovation and, in my eyes, you are all rock stars worthy of an encore.

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