I’ve been struck over the years by the volume and diversity of cancer stories. Scratch the surface, and everyone has one. The ubiquity of the disease means that few of us reach adulthood without knowing someone who suffered, as a patient or caregiver. When I was very young, I heard whispers about my best friend’s mom having breast cancer. I didn’t know what cancer was, but the hushed tones suggested it was scary and bad. By age 13, I had first hand knowledge. A friend at the summer camp where I worked developed leukemia, and over the course of the summer we watched her go from healthy and vibrant to weak and bald. We could still laugh together, but she didn’t return the following summer.
When my grandfather died of pancreatic disease at age 86, the whispers were back, but still the power of that disease and its potential to change lives hadn’t registered. As a parent, I watched my pre-teen kids support friends through the loss a parent to cancer, and the cycle continued. Then my dear friend Amy died from the disease. Then I got cancer. Then my friend Hannah died. Then my cousin got cancer. The hits just keep on coming.
While the onslaught of diagnoses hasn’t slowed, treatment and screening advancements mean more of us are learning we have the disease early, and recovering. The number of cancer survivors is growing — 17 million in the US today, 20 million projected by 2025. So, it is no surprise that we all know someone affected by the disease.
I’m also amazed by the resilience of those who encounter the disease, determined to get on with their lives — whether the same as before or with some new twist — regardless, or because of their cancer. You can’t help but notice the intensity of the desire to live, the passion people bring to ridding themselves of the disease or living their fullest with it. Jim preaches his faith in his future while facing dwindling options and odds. Thao risked recurrence of her leukemia in order to stop treatment long enough to get pregnant and have the son she always wanted. David married the love of his life while in the hospital receiving chemo for a bone marrow transplant. Melissa still runs every day and maintains her psychotherapy practice despite needing maintenance therapy for recurrent ovarian cancer.
For many people, cancer is a chapter in their lives they would like to forget. Once the immediate threat has passed and the fear of recurrence faded, these people would like to move on, to box up the cancer thing and put it on a shelf and never have to think about it again. Life hasn’t changed, even if they have. Maybe they stared death in the face and conquered a fear. Maybe cancer was an annoying blip in their lives, or one more assault in a series of hardships. Or maybe they just don’t have the luxury of doing anything other than to keep on keeping on. Steve went back to work and taking care of rescue dogs. Mary got on with her plans to go back to school and change careers. And Sue literally got back on her horse and rode on.
Passion to Advocate
And then there are the folks who fundamentally change their lives as a result of living through cancer. Like Carolyn, who recognized the disparities in the global face of cancer and started an organization to address it. Or Fatima, who put her heart into being an aunt when cancer took away her dreams of being a mom. Or Nancy, who walks miles every year to raise awareness and much needed funding for ovarian cancer research. Or Pramod, who delivers motivational speeches to hundreds of people a year to remind them there is life after cancer.
Where does this passion come from? What drives someone to turn her life upside down and devote it to helping others thrive through the disease? We do have an innate drive to survive that seems to be inherent in every living thing. But that only explains the ability we all find to push through one more treatment, go one more round with the disease and hope that science won’t fail us in our hour of need. It’s the more radical devotion to the cause that I find most curious, my own case included.
In my brief survey of survivor advocates, it seems that we share a few things in common. Beyond the recognition that there is so much more to do is the realization that we can help. And the understanding that helping might leave a better after taste than the nasty one left by cancer. Whether it is the ability to make things happen, to connect people, to care for others, or to communicate, the world of cancer advocacy seems to need it all. But sometimes, it’s as simple as being able to run, or to walk, or to dance.
As I made my way around the lower loop of the park today, plodding in the heat and negotiating with myself on an interval schedule that involved walking in the shade and sprinting in the sun (Is this sunny stretch long enough that I have to run? Or can I wait until after that next patch of shade?) a young woman ran past with a t-shirt from some cancer fundraising event. I didn’t quite catch what it said, and for a moment, I thought I would sprint after her to find out. But then, the heat and fatigue got the better of me and I let the opportunity slip away.
I’ll never know her specific cancer cause, or what motivates her to run in a t-shirt declaring her loyalty to overcoming cancer. And it doesn’t matter. Whatever the motivation, I am always thrilled to see another person digging in and trying to help. But her shirt reminded me of the tag line I always wished was emblazoned on the back of mine when I run these days. “I may be slow, but I’m beating cancer.” It’s a personal commentary on my lack of fitness these days, despite my NED status, as much as it is a reminder of all the work we still have to do. Everyone has a cancer story, and mine is to plod along and do what I can to help others get through theirs.