As many of you know, I recently participated in the Relay for Life at St Francis Xavier High School in Hammond, Ontario. It was an incredible event powered by the enthusiasm and commitment of the students, leaving me both in awe of their energy and full of hope for the future of cancer research. Being several years past a breast cancer diagnosis – I am moving forward with my life, just as we, the ‘survivors’ move ahead with our banner during the relay commencement.
And so I’d like to approach a topic that could be seen as controversial but, rather, I see as highly relevant and deeply impacting. It has to do with identity and survivorship. The truth of the matter, as we walked the Survivor’s Victory Lap, is that I preferred not to think of myself as a ‘survivor’, but instead someone who has been through the eye of the needle, and now has the privilege to move forward with my life.
Speaking to the other ambassadors who helped commence the relay (and helped in holding our giant banner as we lead the participants in their first lap), they seemed to feel a similar discomfort with the label of ‘survivor’. It didn’t fit our experience.
(If you haven’t had cancer, this may be challenging to understand. The biggest dream when told of this illness is to be free: free of the fear, free of the threat, free of the pressure. Free to feel like ourselves without compromise. Yes, we have survived, but now what? Now we live, which is where the real empowerment occurs.)
To my right was a gentlemen who had pushed through brain cancer and is too fatigued to return to work. He spends his time recovering, resting and golfing whenever possible. He is not simply ‘surviving’, he is enjoying life to its fullest.
To my left was a grandmother who has a family and was filled with emotion for the walk. She too was uncomfortable with the label of survivor. She is a mother, a woman, and a friend. Cancer is only part of her story, and now that she is out of treatment she prefers to look ahead.
There’s something in the term survivor that connotes a fight. But here is the thing: our bodies are not built to constantly be in the ‘fight or flight’ position. That high-stress response is reserved for emergency situations; it is a strain for both the body and mind. After the fight, after surviving, I re-established myself (and became a happier person) through centring and mindfulness. The focus became about moving forward.
With each step in the Relay for Life, as the students cheered us onward, we moved away from the days of chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery, and sickness. We were moving forward to who we want to become – and for us who carried the banner to represent the cause, that’s someone cancer-free with a story goes on far beyond the c-word.
We are not survivors, we are instead THRIVERS.
Personally, I feel deeply that the ‘culture of cancer’ could benefit greatly from a transformation in perspective . . . because the fight is not our entire story, and in regards to beating this illness, I prefer to look ahead – to find the lightness, the freedom, and the joy that cancer had once stolen. For me, the Relay for Life was not about survivorship; it was about hope, change, and moving ahead one step at a time.
Camille Boivin is founder of Sister Leadership, bringing her lessons of resilience and perseverance, fighting back and changing perception to others. As the students of St.Francis Xavier High School have inspired her, she hopes in turn to inspire other women and help explode their success. For more posts and experiences, join Camille at her Sister Leadership page, connect on Twitter, and follow on Facebook (where we have a photo gallery of pictures from the event!)