Remember how I said in a previous blog entry that ‘I heart M.D. Anderson’? Well, I’m saying it again, this time with resounding emphasis and fervor: I heart M.D. Anderson! Why? There are various reasons but this past weekend really swept me off my feet. I am now officially head over heels in love with this place. This is serious, people. We’re talking true love here. What epic event caused this sudden influx of ‘that lovin’ feeling’? The M.D. Anderson Cancer Survivorship Conference.
This two-day weekend event was exactly what the doctor ordered. It was food for my mind, my body, my soul, and my spirit. This conference was a major turning point in the way I view this whole situation. It caused a much-needed paradigm shift in my brain, an a-ha moment if you will. Oprah would be proud. I’d seen the pamphlets and posters around M.D. Anderson announcing this event for the past few weeks and it seemed interesting but I wasn’t sure it was something I should go to considering the word ‘survivorship’. Why is that, you ask? Because up until this weekend, I didn’t consider myself a survivor.
The American Cancer Society defines a person as a cancer survivor “from the time of diagnosis throughout the balance of his or her life.” I always had a problem with that definition. It’s the reason why I didn’t consider myself a cancer survivor. I’d been told time and again that at the very moment I was given my diagnosis, I was a survivor. I guess it’s really the last part of that definition that was my problem. That pesky “balance of his or her life” part. There’s always that fear of ‘what if’ in the back of my mind throughout this battle. Yeah, I’ll just say it. What if I don’t make it? What if I never get to hear the word ‘remission’? It doesn’t mean I believe those questions but, nevertheless, they’re always looming. Always present. If I don’t make it, am I not a survivor? The people that have lost their lives to cancer, are they not survivors? The word ‘remission’, to me, was synonymous with ‘cancer survivor.’
You can see my problem with this definition and why I was having trouble applying it to myself. How was I to consider myself a survivor if I wasn’t in remission? I thought attending this “survivorship” conference would be rather weird considering I wasn’t a survivor. I got the push I needed to go when a good friend in the media department sent me an email suggesting that I attend along with all the information I needed to sign up. Talk about a push in the right direction.
I rearranged all my medical appointments for that Friday and signed myself up along with my husband. We arrived bright and early the first day of the conference and walked up to the registration table to get our name cards and swag bag. “How long have you been a survivor?” the volunteer asked. This question perplexed me because I wasn’t in remission and I felt like an impostor. ‘Great, now they’re gonna know I don’t belong here.’ I must have looked very confused because then she asked me when I was diagnosed and proceeded to hand me a yellow lanyard for my name card. Apparently, yellow was for first year survivors. ‘Ok, if you say so,’ I thought to myself.
The first session I’d signed us up for was not what I signed up for. It was called ‘Yesterday, today and tomorrow: Strategies for long-term survivorship.’ I thought I’d signed up for diet and relaxation tips. I was absolutely wrong yet pleasantly surprised. There had been other sessions to choose from in the same time slot but I had chosen this one. This session was meant for me and it was meant to be the first one we attended. The speaker came to the podium and the first question (I kid you not) was, “When did you first consider yourself a survivor?” She wanted to see a show of hands and declared that she wanted us to share our experiences in reference to that question. I thought, ‘Great again, dummy. You signed up for the wrong session.’
Wrong again. As people began to share their experiences, I found myself nodding in agreement. I could relate to these people. The speaker then brought up the definition of a cancer survivor. Survivorship did not mean ‘remission’ and it did not diminish the battle of those that had passed on because of cancer. She said that the battle, the daily struggles against cancer, made us all survivors. Death is not a loss to cancer and it did not belittle the battle so bravely fought. It was at that moment that the light bulb turned on in my head. My a-ha moment had arrived. I began to cry as a lady talked about when she had realized just that because it was like she was inside my head, saying the very thing I was feeling in that moment. Over and over, people stated that they hadn’t felt like survivors until they realized that concept and I instantly felt complete knowing that I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t broken after all. I was only human.
My love for M.D. Anderson grew that day with their definition of a cancer survivor. Even if I never hear the word ‘remission’ or even if cancer takes my life, I will always be a survivor. I will never forget all of the survivors that I had the privilege of meeting that fateful weekend, my new friends for life. The girl who’s fought brain cancer for 9 years straight and who continues to fight. The guy my age who’s ‘watching and waiting’ his prostate cancer. The twenty-something woman who beat brain cancer at the age of 9. The young woman who had her leg amputated due to bone cancer at the age of 13 and is now a nurse on the same floor at MDA. The talented violinist at our banquet dinner who was told she would not survive seven years ago. They are beating the odds and so am I, regardless of the outcome.
The rest of the conference served as therapy for my husband and I from that point on. Compliments on my ‘do’ or newly resurfacing hair were abundant and very much welcomed. Our many new friends including a few that work at M.D. Anderson as volunteers and a whole group of young survivors just like me. My joy as my husband told me how he felt a huge weight off his shoulders just by meeting other husbands who have walked in his shoes. Our excitement as we got to meet and snag a photo with Dr. Ronald DePinho, the president of the cancer treatment center second-to-none other in the world. In the words of Ron Burgundy: that makes him kind of a big deal. And the best part? I know with absolute certainty that, no matter what, I AM A SURVIVOR.
I HEART M.D. ANDERSON. Sigh…l’amour.