Monday, May 12, 2008

May 12, 2008 - Unbroken

At the age of 20, Jerry White lost his leg – and nearly his life – as he stepped on a landmine while on a camping trip in Israel. Later, he went on to work as a leader of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and become co-founder of Survivor Corps. White has just published a book about how to survive a catastrophic life event. Here’s a selection:

“They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It’s not quite that simple. I believe you have to decide it will make you stronger. Experience has taught me that happy endings can never be taken for granted. They must be chosen. When I was in the hospital for six months in Israel, no one did my physical therapy for me. No one underwent the pain or the fear of six operations for me. I would have liked for someone to, maybe. I confess, the first time I was put in a wheelchair, I sat there and waited for someone to push it for me. I had just had another surgery, I was weak, in pain, exhausted. And when I looked up at my nurse, she looked down at me and laughed. “If you want to move, push.” And so, I did. And I continue to do.

Whether we like it or not, personal determination is required to build resilience – to become fit for whatever the future may hold. We have to tap inner resources and develop some emotional muscle. It’s both a discipline and our responsibility. No one can do it for us.

The good news is we are not alone. We are surrounded by survivors who have gone before us, and their examples will help mark the way forward.”
(I Will Not Be Broken: 5 Steps to Overcoming a Life Crisis, from the Introduction.)

White’s experience was of a sudden, traumatic injury. One moment, he was hiking with two friends through the Israeli countryside. The next moment, the earth exploded around him, and his right foot disappeared. The next day, he lost more of his right leg to the surgeon’s knife.

Even so, I think White’s conclusions can be generalized to include the experience of being diagnosed with a slowly-progressing disease like cancer. In the book, he recalls a conversation he had with Princess Diana, with whom he worked as an anti-landmine activist. Touring Bosnia and speaking with survivors, they observed that everyone seemed to have “their date.” They could all state precisely on which date they had been injured or bereaved.

Many of us cancer survivors can do the same with our dates of diagnosis (mine was December 2, 2005). Before that date, we may have a suspicion something is wrong, but we still have the luxury of hoping it’s nothing serious. After that date, we can never return to such naiveté. We will, forever after, be cancer survivors.

White identifies five essential steps in coming to terms with a life crisis. I think they can be generalized to include the experience of receiving a cancer diagnosis:

1. FACE FACTS. One must first accept the harsh reality about suffering and loss, however brutal. “This terrible thing has happened. It can’t be changed. I can’t rewind the clock. My family still needs me. So now what?”

2. CHOOSE LIFE. That is, “I want to say yes to the future. I want my life to go on in a positive way.” Seizing life, not surrendering to death or stagnation, requires letting go of resentments and looking forward, not back. It can be a daily decision.

3. REACH OUT. One must find peers, friends, and family to break the isolation and loneliness that come in the aftermath of crisis. Seek empathy, not pity, from people who have been through something similar. Let the people in your life into your life. “It’s up to me to reach for someone’s hand.”

4. GET MOVING. Sitting back gets you nowhere. One must get out of bed and out of the house to generate momentum. We have to take responsibility for our actions. “How do I want to live the rest of my life? What steps can I take today?”

5. GIVE BACK. Thriving, not just surviving, requires the capacity to give again, through service and acts of kindness. “How can I be an asset to those around me, and not a drain? Will I ever feel grateful again?” Yes, and by sharing your experience and talents, you will inspire others to do the same.
(I Will Not Be Broken: 5 Steps to Overcoming a Life Crisis, from Chapter 1.)

There’s something of an up-by-the-bootstraps character to this way of thinking, but I think it makes good sense. We all depend on our medical professionals, family and friends to do things for us, but ultimately we’ve got to claim responsibility for our own healing.


Chris Abraham said...

Thank you for this wonderful -- the gold standard -- blog review of the experience and mission of Jerry White and about his book, I Will Not Be Broken! We appreciate it very much!

Carlos ("Carl") said...

I'm glad to do so. It's an impressive book.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, there is a difference in a cancer diagnosis. I live with the full knowledge that I will die soon from this disease whereas he does not. He has a future ahead of him but I do not. I have dug deep and deeper into that inner well and sometimes I come up empty. Sometimes I strike gold. I think it is okay to surrender to our weakness, sometimes, but not all the time. Christine

Anonymous said...

We could all get hit by a truck tomorrow morning or a bus by the afternoon - however I think the point is UNTIL that happens we do have a choice on HOW to live those days, hours, minutes. I have stage IV canser and was given an 'expiry date' ...I could lay down and wait or I could dance.

OH I will never give canser any respect SO I refuse to spell it correctly. It may be childish but darn it feels good!


Carlos ("Carl") said...

Carrie, I've been noticing the "canser" spelling over on Kris Carr's site (Crazy, Sexy Cancer), but I've never seen any explanation for the spelling. I think I've seen them spell it CanSer (with the "s" capitalized). Is that the same as your explanation, I wonder?

Carrie said...

Wonder know longer! You bet it is. I dismiss its importance by simply not even spelling it correctly.