Dana Stewart was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010 at the age of 32. She is the co-founder of a cancer survivorship organization called The Dragonfly Angel Society. She volunteers as an advocate and mentor, focusing on young adults surviving cancer. She enjoys writing about life as a cancer survivor, as well as connecting survivors to the resources, inspirations and stories that have helped her continue to live her best life, available at www.dragonflyangelsociety.com.
The label of being a cancer survivor can be simple, but underneath it can mean something so different to each person. Only you can choose what the idea of survivorship means to your journey.
The idea of cancer survivorship seems like it should be a simple idea. You have been diagnosed with cancer. You are still living; therefore, you are a survivor. That about sums it up in laymen's terms. Now, let's break that down from the eyes of a survivor. It' just not so black and white.
That initial definition of survivorship is how I understood what cancer survivorship was long before I actually became a cancer survivor.
After receiving the diagnosis of breast cancer 9 years ago, the first thing I did was cry. Then I got mad. Then I went back to crying. After all the initial emotions and reactions, I had to start breaking down treatment options, scheduling appointments, surgeries, and of course, the telling of friends and family. I hated all of it. I was a planner and always planned everything out. Cancer was not in my detailed life schedule, so it threw off my whole life plan. Then, of course, I had no plan on how to deal with a diagnosis because I never thought it would happen in the first place. One of the constant questions people asked me was did I consider myself a survivor? Well, that was also not a question I thought about, so I had no response because I had no clue.
I had no idea what the protocol was on the label of a cancer survivor. I thought it was odd that was what people asked me after they heard I had cancer. I guess it is better than them asking if I thought I was going to die, so I accepted their questioning. My first reaction was always "NO. I am not a survivor. I haven't survived anything yet." That reaction went over, well, not at all. People would just look at me perplexed. Personally, I don't understand why this is such a big question. I was dealing with cancer and I could think of about 650 other things that seemed way more urgent than deciding 2 days after my diagnosis if I was a survivor or not. I decided my answer would be if I lived one year after my diagnosis, I would then call myself a survivor.
Looking at myself pre-diagnosis, I can kind of relate to people's questions on survivorship. Survivor is such a strong word. It means you went through something terrible and came out the other side still standing. That's how I used to see it. Having had cancer, I started to see it in a new light. However, that took some time and a lot of sales pitches to myself to sell the idea that I was a survivor from day one. I had to remind myself with each day after that diagnosis I was surviving cancer. It was just one day at a time, but I was surviving.
Then after a year went by and I thought of all I had gone through, I felt stronger on the idea of cancer survivorship. I was still hesitant on saying I was a survivor because I'd only lived a year after diagnosis at that point. I thought I would truly feel like a survivor when I hit 5 years after diagnosis. It was like living a survivorship timeline in which with every tick of the line I passed, it meant I survived another year. Then I thought I would just close the book on cancer and move on.
I think the truth of it is, there is no true timeline of cancer survivorship. I am 9 years out from diagnosis and I still feel like every day I am just surviving one day at a time. I still have fears, anxiety, pain, sadness, and anger towards cancer. I hope every day it doesn't come back. I hope every ache or pain is nothing more than an ache or pain. So, as of today, I am still surviving. That's how I have sold myself on the idea of survivorship. It's a constant. It's always there in whatever form or idea you want it to be. If you feel like you are a survivor the minute you are diagnosed, then you are. If you are still going through treatment and don't consider yourself a survivor? Hey, that's cool and don't let anyone tell you otherwise (and there will be plenty of people who give you their thoughts on that one.) If you never feel like a survivor, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that either. Bottom line is, you just need to sell yourself the idea of survivorship in whatever way or form it means to you.