Being a cancer survivor changes you. Maybe it’s the realization of your mortality. Maybe it’s living through the treatment they use to cure you and all the nasty side-effects that come along with it. Maybe it’s the shift in perspective when you’re done treatment and they (hopefully) tell you that, for now and possibly forever, you are cancer-free. It could be all of these things, and others that I’m not even thinking of.
For the moment I am cancer-free. I am a cancer survivor. It’s a term I’ve had a lot of trouble claiming. When I meet other cancer survivors, they immediately own the words as they connect with you, “I’m a survivor too.” And I’m learning the language that goes along with it. During chemo and for the first few months after it, when someone would tell me that they were a survivor, I never knew how to respond, or what to say. I didn’t know how to handle that connection, the unspoken community that exists between cancer survivors. It made me uncomfortable.
After a while, though, I learned to accept the community, and not feel like I was an interloper in it somehow. I actually had cancer. It sucked, because cancer always sucks. Other survivors aren’t judging me based on which one I had, or what stage I was at, or how long I did chemo, or whether I had surgery. They don’t ask or seem to care about those things. My sense of being an imposter was internalized.
There’s always the question, or the declaration, of the amount of time one has been cancer-free. “It’s been eight years,” a survivor told me at the end of the first day of my Ride to Conquer Cancer. And because that question is always the first one a survivor asks, I knew to reply, “It’s been four months since I finished chemo.” It’s part of the journey and part of that connection — one you can really only share with other cancer survivors. They know.
On the other side of things, I’m still not certain how to respond to people who tell me about their friend/family member who has cancer, though. I can express my sympathy, and tell them how sorry I am to hear that someone they care about is going through it, but I can’t find the right words — if such words even exist — to deflect an awkward, sad silence. It would be easier to talk to the individual themselves than the one on the outside. Not because I want to exclude them; I don’t. I just have a better idea of what I could say to someone going through a similar experience to mine than to someone who has to watch it happen. I didn’t have to watch cancer happen to someone I love. I had to live it. It’s different.
It’s an exclusive club. Watching someone go through it, I think, is its own exclusive club. I wish no one had to be a part of either one.