Saturday, July 14, 2012

What a Survivor Is

This is my speech that I gave at the Relay for Life event this year. A few friends asked me if I would share it, so here it is...

At my first Relay for Life event three summers ago, I had just been hit with a Stage 4 Melanoma diagnosis.  It was probably the hardest time of my entire life.  I was in the middle of making some major decisions on treatment and choosing a doctor and as some of you know, that is not an easy process.

So, I came to Relay not really sure what to expect.  I remember signing up for the Survivor Lap and getting my t-shirt.  I’ll be honest—I didn’t really feel like a cancer “survivor” yet.  Here I was, walking amongst all of these incredible cancer survivors of all ages and different diagnosis, people who really had something to celebrate, people who had defied all odds and were living miracles and yet I didn’t feel as though I belonged.  In my eyes, I wasn’t a survivor YET, right?!  After all, I was just beginning this fight, the fight for my life.  As a 32 year old wife and mother of 2 young children at the time, I had a lot to live for, yet I wasn’t sure of my fate.  I was frightened to death because I didn’t know what to expect in the upcoming months and years.  Would I have success with treatments?  Could I handle the side effects?  How much would life change?  And most importantly, would I be around to see my kids grow up?

I can thankfully say I had success with treatments and I am now in remission.  It is an enormous milestone and one that I don’t take for granted.  I am living proof that miracles indeed exist!  And I give full credit to God for getting me to where I am today.  I now know that I am a “Survivor”!

In the last couple of years, I have learned a lot about myself and what it takes to be a “survivor”.  I have met many courageous cancer survivors and heard their remarkable stories.  What I have found is that survivors have a lot of commonalities!  So, what does it take to be a “survivor”?

Well, I took the word SURVIVOR and made an anagram out of it.   And so, here are some attributes that I believe are within every survivor.

S stands for Support.  I think we can agree that, as survivors, we couldn’t have made it through cancer and everything that it entails physically, mentally, emotionally without support.  I know that I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the “army” of people standing along side of me—my family, friends, healthcare team, church, community, and of course, God at the helm.  Having a solid support system is critical!

U stands for Unconquerable spirit.   All of the survivors I meet have this amazing attitude on life after they have gone through cancer.  One of the things that I have learned over the last couple of years is that, “We can do hard things”.  We are stronger than we know!  A winning attitude and sheer determination gets you far in life, but I have found that it is crucial when you are going through something like cancer.  Survivors, simply put, are WINNERS!

R stands for Resilient.  Resilience is the ability to adapt to different situations.  When you have cancer, as you know, things can change quickly.  Test results are sometimes not what we want or expect, treatments can alter, plans can change, but we learn that we have to adapt along the way, adjust our sails, and keep on going!

V stands for Vivacious.  Cancer survivors are full of life.  You might think that cancer patients don’t appear to be “vivacious” going through chemo—the bald head, the lack of energy and appetite, and all the other unpleasant side effects that occur from treatments, but think of it this way:  When you are fighting cancer, you sometimes have to dig deep to find your will to live.  And as a survivor, your will to live is all you really need to get you through the hard stuff.  Being vivacious is not only being full of life, but living life to the fullest!!  And I believe cancer survivors do just that.  They have learned to not let life pass them by and they truly live in the present.

I stands for Inspirational.  You hear all these stories of triumph against cancer, often against all odds, and they leave you feeling humble and grateful, moved and inspired.  I believe that every story is inspiring and every cancer survivor is a miracle!  Look around you, there are cancer survivors everywhere of all ages—there were grandmas, middle-aged men, teenagers, and what struck me the most during my first Survivor Lap was seeing the young children and even babies that had been touched by cancer!  It hit me that cancer doesn’t discriminate and that was a humbling realization.  Even though I didn’t know these survivors, to me, they were courageous and inspiring and I was honored to walk with them.  They helped me, during a difficult time beginning my fight, to keep going.  They helped me realize that I could beat this.

V stands for Victorious.  Cancer survivors are victorious!  Every clean scan, every good test result, every milestone along the way is a victory in it of itself.  Most importantly, cancer survivors have the perseverance, determination, and drive to keep going which is important in reaching that end-goal:  N.E.D!!!  And what a sweet victory those three little letters are.

O stands for Optimistic.  I think that most everyone would agree that having a positive attitude is probably the most important quality to have when you are battling cancer.  Remaining optimistic, even despite the challenges and set-backs is crucial.  Keeping your eye on the prize.  Focusing on the good things and blessings in your life.  Ignoring the odds and statistics (a big one!).  I also think that being optimistic is also being hopeful.  Hoping for success.  Hoping for N.E.D.  Hoping to beat the odds.  Hoping for that miracle!  Hope is a vital component to being a survivor.  And we must never give up hope!
R stands for Remission.  Remission to a cancer survivor is the golden ticket.  It is what we are striving for and what we are striving to stay in.  The first time I heard the words “remission” from my oncologist, I wanted to jump up and kiss his face!  Even though I knew very well that I was by no means “out of the woods”, I also knew how important that milestone was.  For someone with Stage 4 Melanoma and only about a 5 % rate of survival, I knew remission was a pretty big deal.
To close, we must know that we are all survivors!!  No matter if we were diagnosed 10 years ago, 5 years ago, or 5 weeks ago.  If you are here today, you are a “survivor”.  So, wear your shirt proudly, be grateful that you are alive today, and relish in the joy that is life.

I am a cancer survivor.  And I relay for myself, my family members and loved ones who have battled cancer, my husband and two boys, and all the melanoma warriors and angels.

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