By Gwen Darien
The Bonds of Survivorship
By Gwen Darien
Recently, a contractor was in my office changing my light fixtures. He was helping to ensure that I don't get the migraines that have been persistent since chemo. We were chatting in the pleasant, companionable manner of two people working on different projects in the same space, when he turned to me and said: "You write about cancer? I'm a cancer survivor." Immediately, I turned my chair from my computer screen to face him directly. "Me, too. Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma," I replied. "What kind did you have?" He was a leukemia survivor. The tenor and depth of our conversation immediately changed, becoming more personal, more open—we bonded over cancer survivorship. We talked about our treatments, our families, and how long it had been since we had each been diagnosed.
Bonding over the shared experience of surviving cancer has been a regular part of my life in the 13 years since I was diagnosed, but the nature of these bonds has evolved. At first, it was all about me: Long-term survivors exemplified my hope that I would survive the disease. Then for a while, the vista changed to the middle distance. A couple of years out from diagnosis, there was a good chance that I would be OK and I began cancer advocacy work. Now that I'm a long-term survivor, my perspective and bonds with other survivors have changed again. When interacting with the newly diagnosed, I'm now one of the long-term survivors who offers hope. And when communicating with other long-term survivors, I sense an understanding, which often comes with discussion of the late effects of treatment and survivorship-both physical and psychological.
As Cynthia Ryan writes in her essay, "The Sisterhood of Survivorship," most of these bonds are much more complex than we often acknowledge. The narratives of our experiences with cancer and the impacts of diagnosis over the course of time are as unique, shifting and relative as all of the other stories and aspects of our lives. Ten years ago, when I first became involved in cancer advocacy, I edited a magazine about women's cancers—primarily breast and ovarian. Yet, I'm a survivor of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. It's true that the opportunity to edit that magazine was fortuitous. But, it's also true that I wanted to work in cancer advocacy after my diagnosis and that I never became involved with lymphoma groups. Was it easier to learn about women's cancers? Was it less emotionally difficult to make my contribution to cancer survivors and their caregivers by publishing articles about a cancer that wasn't my own? I believe on some level it was—to this day, sitting through scientific presentations on non-Hodgkin's lymphoma makes me anxious, the fear resurges and I must force myself to focus.
I am firmly, and publicly, committed to being a part of the larger cancer community—to playing a role in making the path easier for those diagnosed with cancer and to working in research advocacy to help achieve our goal of preventing and curing cancer. Most days, as I do this work, I am relatively unconscious of my status as a cancer survivor. But on others, this work is a way to actively transcend my own diagnosis. Belonging to the community of cancer survivors is at once comforting and complex, personal and universal. It allows us the opportunity of closer personal communication with strangers, like the contractor in my office, as well as the possibility to rise above our own experience—both for better and for worse.