Danielle Ripley-Burgess is a two-time colon cancer survivor first diagnosed at age 17, an award-winning communications professional and the author of Blush: How I barely survived 17. She writes and speaks to encourage others that faith can survive. Also, she bakes a really good chocolate chip cookie. Follow her blog at DanielleRipleyBurgess.com or connect on social media at @DanielleisB.
Cancer survivors are just like snowflakes in that they are unique and not the same, says a two-time cancer survivor.
Like many parts of the country, my hometown of Kansas City is blanketed in a layer of snow. Despite the hazardous road conditions and freezing temperatures, it’s really pretty.
Ever since I was a child, I’ve been told no two snowflakes are exactly alike. I would test the theory by pressing my nose against a cold windowpane to study the flakes caught in the screen during a snowfall. As far as I could tell, the adults were right. No two snowflakes had the exact same pattern, shape and design. I found this to be a good way to view people the older I got. All jokes and put-downs aside, the snowflake is a powerful metaphor for how to see and respect others.
As a young girl, I embraced being a tomboy and preferred basketball over Barbies. I also loved books, piano and theatre. All this made me unique; I enjoyed both sports and the arts, and I rejected anything frilly. While many of the other girls took dance, played with dolls and loved wearing dresses, I was different. I was secure in this uniqueness until I hit the infamous tween years. During what felt like a sudden change, I was embarrassed I’d never owned ballet shoes and knew how to plie. I thought my clothes needed to come from certain stores in the mall and I spent $100 of my own money on Doc Martins. I needed to be the same as the other students in my middle and high school. I needed to fit in, for that meant survival.
At 17 years old, something happened that took away the relevance of my Docs and gave me a new understanding of survival mode. I was diagnosed with colon cancer my junior year of high school. Suddenly, I felt like an odd ball out— again—and my name-brand clothes couldn’t help. I started doing school from home decades before virtual schooling became a thing. While my peers were congregating near their lockers and cramming for math tests, I was getting chemo. To get through the shock, pain and grief of losing a “normal” high school experience, I had to accept my uniqueness again. It took time, but I eventually became proud of being a teenage colon cancer survivor. It’s something very few others in the world can say.
Part of getting to this point involved joining advocate communities where I’ve met other survivors who can relate. Through The Colon Club and Fight Colorectal Cancer, I have met a handful of others who were diagnosed in their teens and twenties. I’ve met patients with Lynch syndrome, those who’ve undergone a subtotal colectomy, and other long-term survivors who also deal with radiation side effects decades after treatment. Thanks to these groups, I know I’m not the only one who has adopted after cancer, written a book, or gets fired up about early-age onset colorectal cancer (a term now used to describe what happened to me). In fact, I get together with advocates each March to tell my story during Call-on Congress and ask lawmakers to support policies like a younger screening age, more research funding, and access to care for everyone — not only a well-insured, privileged few.
From the outside, our stories may look the same, like a blanket of snow covering the ground. And typically, we present similar asks — that’s how advocacy works. But just like the tiny flakes after a fresh snow, if you get personal with patients, you’ll quickly notice differences in both personality and experience. Despite similarities, no two survivors are exactly alike.
Some can eat French fries and ice cream, others said goodbye to meat and dairy a long time ago. Intimacy is a struggle for some, not for others. Some colorectal cancer survivors have ostomies, neuropathy and hair loss, others don’t face any of those things. Some survivors can laugh and joke about their experiences, others tear up at the thought or get really angry.
Some are very private, others start Facebook groups, Twitter accounts and Instagram hashtags. Some had to fight to get access to screening and others were basically bribed by a doctor to get checked. Some survivors are mad at God, others can’t imagine surviving cancer without their faith.
Like any other group, cancer survivors are as unique as they are the same. What I’ve learned about survivorship after all these years is that it works a lot like the snow. When we recognize and accept our differences, yet resolve to move forward together, it can create real change and beautiful things.
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