The meaning of survivorship (from a cancer “survivor” point of view)

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Camila Silva

Survivor. Although the exact origin of this word might be unknown, the prefix “sur” means “over”, “above” or “in addition” to something. At the age of 29, living a pretty healthy lifestyle and with no cancer background in my family, I could not expect that this word would become such a part of my life.

On Jan. 19 I received the call feared by many. During a typical visit to my gynecologist, the doctor could see with the naked eye that something unusual was on my cervix. After performing a biopsy, the results finally came: it was cancer. For many, the word “cancer” is received as a death sentence. For me at that moment, I didn’t know exactly what to think – would it be some benign type of cancer? Would it be something they could easily zap out of my body? Before I imagined any further, the doctor continued, saying that it was not only cancer, but a rare type, that would need the input of a specialist.

After further analysis of a specialist, I was diagnosed with Small Cell Neuroendocrine Carcinoma of the Cervix, popularly known as Small Cell Cervical cancer (SCCC). This rare type of cancer affects only 1 percent of all cervical cancer cases, with approximately only 250 women diagnosed annually in the United States. Due to its rare nature, clinical trials and overall research are lacking, which presents an even bigger challenge to doctors in general. Despite the lack of data, it is known as a very aggressive disease, with rapid doubling time and often recurrences commonly in distant parts of the body, such as brain, liver and bones. An equally aggressive treatment is recommended, involving surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Contrary to the most common types of cervical cancer, there’s no specific way to predict or prevent SCCC. Because of this, I stress: Never skip a pap smear.

The series of events that followed that day compose the most awful time of my life. Surgery was scheduled for the following week, a radical hysterectomy, which would take away my ability to bear children. Chemo would start 20 days after that. Plans had to be postponed, dreams had to be rearranged and my entire life reinvented. I was devastated and struggling with all the terrible side effects of such intensive treatment, but feeling blessed at the same time for having such an amazing group of doctors who were able to catch this disease early, and a fantastic support system around me, comprised of family and friends.

I’ve learned that cancer does not wait for the perfect timing and it doesn’t care about your financial situation or your emotions. It shows up out of the blue and has the power to humble your entire existence, making you realize that you might have your entire life planned, but the universe has plans of its own. I’ve mostly learned that life is unpredictable regardless of cancer, although we like to cling to the idea that we are safe.

I have been called “survivor” many times after I entered remission. But I have to confess that the word “survivor” bothers me a little bit. The idea around it, meaning that a cancer survivor has been given extra or additional time on earth, doesn’t seem fair or accurate to me. Although cancer does give you a new perspective on life, I do not consider that I have beaten the odds. If I did, I would have to agree that an imminent threat to my life was in place, when having my life cut short was never an option to me.

The way that I would like to be perceived is as someone who has done everything in her power to take her life back. Back to normal. Back to the regular course that it would have normally taken if not interrupted by cancer.

I will never forget the tough days I’ve been through. They have shaped me into the new person that I’ve become.

But every now and then I like to forget the idea that I’m a survivor and embrace the idea that I’m an “endurer”, a regular person who only happened to hit a couple more bumps in the road. At the end of the day, we are meant to live long and dream big. We are not meant to just survive: We are meant to live.

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