Thursday, January 12, 2006
January 12, 2006 - Survivor
I’m thinking today about what it means to be a cancer survivor.
Not a survivor as in that late, lamentable television series – the one with the gang of quirky individuals who, one by one, vote each other off a desert island – but a more positive ideal. Several weeks ago, I was filling out a form to register for an educational teleconference sponsored by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, when I noticed the form did not provide a check-off box for cancer patients. There was a box for health-care providers, and another for family members – but nothing for patients. The only remaining choice was to call myself a cancer survivor.
Wait a minute, I thought to myself. There’s been some mistake. But then I caught on. Everyone who is living with cancer is a cancer survivor! I checked the box, but still felt a bit uncomfortable doing so. My cancer diagnosis was only days old. I hadn’t yet received any treatment. How could I claim to belong to that courageous company of survivors – they who have weathered chemotherapy, or radiation, or surgery, or all three – that legion of battle-hardened veterans who have been knocked down time and time again, but have always gotten right back up? Had I truly earned my survivor’s merit badge?
In his classic book, Love, Medicine and Miracles: Lessons Learned About Self-Healing from a Surgeon’s Experience with Exceptional Patients (Harper Perennial, 1986), Bernie Siegel tells of a study of Korean War military survivors that was conducted by a psychologist, Al Siebert:
“He has found that one of their most prominent characteristics is a complexity of character, a union of many opposites that he has termed biphasic traits. They are both serious and playful, tough and gentle, logical and intuitive, hard-working and lazy, shy and aggressive, introspective and outgoing, and so forth. They are paradoxical people who don’t fit into the usual psychological categories. This makes them more flexible than most people, with a variety of resources to draw on” (p. 161).
“As patients, those who have or are developing survival traits are self-reliant and seek solutions rather than lapsing into depression. They interpret problems as redirections, not failures. They are the ones who read or meditate in the waiting room instead of staring forlornly into space” (pp. 162-163).
As a minister, I’ve always known this to be true – on an intellectual level. As I’ve visited patients in hospitals and prayed with them, I’ve seen some who have taken hold of their treatment and proceeded with a positive, can-do attitude, and others who just give up the ghost. I don’t need to tell you which sort of patient typically does better.
It’s the survivors who survive. That sounds like a truism, I know, but that's the way it is. The task before me in the months to come is not only to seek to fall in with that company, but also to feel like I belong in their midst.