#IAmASurvivor are stories from women of all walks of life, telling their stories of survival. Everybody is a survivor and all stories deserve to be told. These stories are all in their own words.
How I Survived Cancer and Still Struggled to Identify as a Survivor
What makes someone a survivor? Is it merely the act of surviving an event?
According to The Oxford Dictionary, it is exactly that. More specifically, a survivor is a person who survives, especially a person remaining alive after an event in which others have died. By definition, I am a survivor. So why do I sometimes feel like I’m not?
I have a difficult relationship with the word survivor, especially as it relates to cancer. I was diagnosed with cancer, melanoma to be exact, in January of 2015. I was lucky. We caught the cancer very early so it was late Stage 1 and, although it was growing rapidly, my oncologist was able to remove it all during surgery. There were some concerns about the possibility of the cancer having spread to my lymph nodes due to the rate of growth but those tests came back all clear. One really long day of lymph node tracing and surgery and I was cancer free.
Again, I ask myself, why do I struggle with calling myself a survivor?
Maybe it has to do with the way people react to my form of cancer. When people find out I had melanoma, it usually goes one of two ways: they either are genuinely concerned and ask if I’m okay now or they respond with, “Oh, it was just skin cancer. My (insert friend, uncle, neighbor, second cousin’s first grade pen pal here) had that too.” Many people hear that it was skin cancer and dismiss it as though it wasn’t a real cancer.
Maybe it’s because there are so many days where I still feel like a cancer patient. Although my cancer is gone, my oncologist prescribed skin checks to be performed every three months for five years due to the rate my cancer had been growing. At my first skin check, my doctor found more irregular moles that needed to be removed and biopsied. Since then, I’ve had three additional surgeries: two on my stomach and another on my right breast. In four years, I’ve only had one skin check where nothing needed to be removed or biopsied. It’s hard not to feel like a cancer patient when the treatments and fear live on.
Maybe it’s because I have visual reminders that my cancer journey is a continuous one. Although the irregular moles found at my first skin check were not cancerous, they were found to be moderately atypical. Due to their size, I had to have another, more minor surgery, to remove the two spots on and under my right breast. This time, I had a reaction to the stitches. My skin was so irritated from the sutures that the incision wasn’t healing and ended up splitting open in the middle. Three and a half years later, you can still see every line from where the stitches were. In addition to my “perma-stitches”, I have a scar on the right side of my neck, a significant one on my right shoulder, one under my right arm, two on my stomach and two on my right breast. In a world where we are surrounded by photoshopped images, retouched pictures and Instagram filters, how do we expect survivors to accept their scars, let alone embrace them?
Or maybe it’s just because I feel helpless. I wear long sleeves whenever possible, I wear sunscreen like moisturizer and I have hats for every type of weather you can conceive of.
There is no explanation for why my body continues to grow and develop atypical moles. I have developed anxiety around doctor’s visits that is so severe, it’s more common for me to start crying than not when my doctor comes into the room. One time I cried for an entire week before my upcoming appointment. I was sure that my cancer had returned and that I was dying. In that moment, I no longer felt like a survivor. I have been cancer free for four years now but I still feel trapped, like a victim of my own body.
Yet, maybe it’s all of these things that are what truly make me a survivor. To me, survivors are strong and brave. They fight no matter what and don’t give up. I share my story in the hopes that people will recognize that melanoma, skin cancer, is cancer. It hurts me to think that calling myself a survivor could be perceived as diminishing someone else’s fight, strength and bravery. Yet, having “just skin cancer” does not not mean it wasn’t emotional, painful and terrifying for myself, my family and my friends. Why do people feel the need to compare our stories, our struggles, our suffering, our strength, our survival? Melanoma might be the most treatable form of skin cancer but it’s also the deadliest. If you don’t believe me, find yourself a melanoma pamphlet. If it’s not the first sentence on the page, it’s probably not farther down than the first paragraph.
I learned to ask for help.
I didn’t realize it right away but I had become extremely depressed. I had struggled with depression in the past but this was different. It happened so gradually that the symptoms snuck up on me. I felt like a burden to my family. I constantly felt guilt over the perception of being a bad friend. I felt unattractive and unlovable as a result of the scarring from my procedures. I ate compulsively to numb my feelings and gained significant weight, leading to more feelings of inadequacy. I hated myself. I began seeing a therapist who helped me deal with the emotions I didn’t even realize I was feeling. She helped me heal with my self perceptions and self worth. Am I still scared? Sure. But fear and bravery are not exclusive of each other. I still get up every day and take care of myself and my body. In fact, I’ve learned to take better care of my body. I appreciate and value it and my health more.
One of the hardest cancer-related decisions I made changed my entire future, although I didn’t know it at the time. My apartment lease in Chicago was expiring the day of my first post-cancer skin check and I had no idea what to expect. I couldn’t imagine going through surgery again without my family around to help me so I made the decision to move closer to home. I knew this was the right decision for me but I couldn’t help feeling like I was giving up both a dream and my independence. I had always wanted to live in Chicago and was trying to work my way up in a professional sports organization while completing my master’s degree in Sport Management. I struggled with the impact of this decision for months. Back home, I felt isolated and directionless. I had my family but not the social life I needed. All of my closest friends lived anywhere from an hour and a half to six hours away. I was still attending graduate school online but felt defeated after receiving rejection upon rejection from jobs related to my field.
It was about a year after I landed my first job in sports and was applying for my “dream job” when I realized how much more cancer had changed me than I realized. While I still loved working in sports, it didn’t fulfill me the way it used to. I wanted to make a difference, give back to those who needed it. I had survived some of the toughest years of my life and it made me want to help others. Read the first part of that sentence again:
I had survived.
I’m not writing this so you feel sorry for me. To the contrary, I’d be horrified if you pitied me. I still struggle some days but I now recognize my strength. I still have anxiety before my skin checks but I no longer cry at the appointments. I still have times where I feel like a cancer patient but I no longer feel alone. I still feel lost at times but I know now more than ever who I am. As the Queen Bey and Destiny’s child once sang, “I’m a survivor; I’m gonna make it. I will survive, keep on surviving.” I’m a survivor.