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Becoming a Cancer Survivalist


A guy with breast cancer sees surviving in a new light.

The notion of going to war with my cancer and engaging in a kind of extended biological battle has never been part of my wellness routine, but I don't have a judgment about others who find this approach constructive; in fact, I think it's just one more personal choice that we all get to make.

The truth is, I've often thought of myself as a "conscientious objector" when it comes to dealing with my disease. And of course, all of these metaphors that we conjure up to aid us in our quest to survive are useful, whether they be prayers or mantras or battle cries.

But today, as I received a phone call from my oncologist reminding me that I'm overdue for an MRI examination of my remaining breast, that familiar feeling of uneasy acceptance returned, and suddenly my cancer was right back on the front burner. So, what to do? Fight, flight or just close my eyes and hold on tight?

Many of us with cancer in our lives have a "survival story" that shows up at various times. Mine often feels to me like an all-too-familiar dialogue taking place between my physical and emotional self. And just when I think that I'll never fall into that cycle again, it only takes a phone call to bring it all back and reignite the spark of fear that follows so many of us with a life-threatening disease.

Such is the cycle of cancer.

After that phone call, I decided to take a deeper look at how I've evolved in these last four years since my initial breast cancer diagnosis, just to see if my life has settled into some regular sort of predictable, dependable rhythm. And then I remembered, as I always do, that a life with cancer is anything but predictable or dependable.

And that got me to thinking about my commitment to living proactively with my disease and of becoming not just a survivor, but a dedicated cancer survivalist. According to the English dictionary, "survivalism" is a primarily American movement of individuals or groups (called survivalists) who actively prepare for emergencies, including possible disruptions in social or political order, on scales from local to international.

At first glance the distinction between "survivor" and "survivalist" seems rudimentary, but to me it means not only being fully prepared to deal with any cancer event that arises, but expanding beyond my personal experience to make a meaningful contribution to the worldwide pursuit of wellness. Writing and speaking about male breast cancer is a big part of my cancer story, but there's more to be done.

So, with that in mind, becoming a cancer survivalist doesn't seem like a bad idea. I'm certainly prepared for those emergencies and disruptions in my life that show up from time to time, and that phone call reminding me that it's time to lie face down for 20 minutes in that claustrophobic tube and have my body probed by electromagnetic energy certainly qualifies as a disruption.

Each time I've been faced with another challenge in my own expedition through cancer, I've found others who have had similar experiences — folks who offer me information and support and most of all, with the imagination to see beyond the immediate hurdle, and find the drive to push on to the finish line.

Cancer does seem like a race sometimes. But where and what, exactly, is the finish line? Is simply staying alive enough? That's a question of course that we must each answer for ourselves. But I see my cancer diagnosis as an open opportunity to reengage with parts of life that I may have missed while healthy and well. Of course, it hurts sometimes and it gets pretty scary when we're anxious and vulnerable, but regardless of the conditions that this disease tags us with, we are always more than the sum of our symptoms. And by living as a cancer survivalist we never become the victims of our afflictions.


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