A Survivor Reflects on Cancer’s Toll

September 11, 2020
Felicia Mitchell
Felicia Mitchell

Felicia Mitchell is a poet and writer who makes her home in southwestern Virginia, where she teaches at Emory & Henry College. She was diagnosed with Stage 2b HER2-positive breast cancer in 2010. Website: www.feliciamitchell.net

Cancer survivors sometimes wonder about their purpose on earth as time passes and so many others pass away before us with cancer. We need to be gentle with ourselves and not stress to much.

I thought I would do something festive on the tenth anniversary of the mammogram that started my cancer journey. Instead, I was a little pensive. Well, maybe I was more than a little pensive. I spent the day lost in thought, even as I did chores or took a stroll down a country road.

How could I not be pensive? Two days before, a friend had died of a cruel, unrelenting cancer. In an email to some friends about this death, abandoning my bias against the battle metaphor, I said that this woman had battled cancer courageously. She had. We all have different ways of engaging with a horrible disease. She taught me that when you are trying to save your own life, it helps to be daring.

Thinking about how special this woman was and how sad her passing is to so many, I started thinking about my older brother’s last day on earth some years ago. As I relived those last hours, I also thought about how he had faced his terminal diagnosis with hope and dignity. Although he and my friend we're given dire prognoses when they were diagnosed, both lived every minute after that with passionate attention to life. They had such strong wills to live.

In the 10 years I have survived cancer, too many others have not survived it. Thinking of those who have passed on, it is impossible for me to pat myself on the back and say, “Look at you, you're still standing.” Instead, I compare myself with everyone from friends to family members (including my mother) to writers I cherish to people in the news.

The day my friend died, the news was abuzz with the death of actor Chadwick Boseman, who had hoped to beat cancer. He still did so many remarkable things while living with cancer. Like Boseman, poet Anya Silver also lived her life like a champion in stage four. I got to witness her zest for life when she came to the college where I worked to share her gift of poetry.

Thinking about Boseman and Silver, I cannot help but call to mind a dear college friend who phoned me when I was diagnosed to tell me how she had survived a similar diagnosis and how I would thrive too. She also passed on in the past 10 years, combining that sparkling optimism I see in so many cancer patients with a realistic acceptance of the body’s mortality. There is a lesson there.

What lesson do I have to offer? I am still pondering that question days after my tenth anniversary. Acknowledging all my cancer role models, I wonder if I am using my time well, as if this extra time on earth is a special gift that deserves an exemplary effort to change the world we live in for the better. While I perhaps was doing that a little when I was still teaching, I have to wonder if my life is worthy to compensate for surviving when my brother — and many others — have had to die.

We all have heard about survivor’s guilt. I do not feel guilty for surviving. It seems obvious to me that I experience more of a survivor’s inferiority complex. Not coincidentally, my brother, who died at 21, had similar worries, even as he lived his life brilliantly on the verge of dying. Feeling vulnerable in our wide world, using a metaphor from typing, he mused, “I guess I’ll keep on hunting and pecking.” I too will keep on exploring the life I have been given. Survival is worth living.

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