Not long ago, Marie Ennis O’Connor of Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer posed an excellent question on one of her posts; she inquired what our particular style of illness was. She based this question on Anatole Broyard’s book Intoxicated By My Illness, where the author says, “Every seriously ill person needs to develop a style for his illness.”
I left the following comment on her post: “I have worked very hard to cultivate my style of dealing with breast cancer and its aftermath. I try to shelter myself from too much information on the Internet, as what I’ve often found is beyond scary and really doesn’t serve me. My purpose is two-fold: 1. To be good to myself and instead of giving too much of my time, effort, etc. to others who drain me, to give that time to myself and 2. To help educate others about what it’s like to be a breast cancer survivor and lend voice to this experience. In doing so, I am also helping myself as it’s cathartic and therapeutic to write and be heard.”
Now, looking back, I realize I was really discussing my survivorship style, rather than an illness style.
So let’s talk survivorship.
Everyone who considers him or herself a cancer survivor has an approach unique to that person. I am no exception. For me, survivorship is often a haphazard array of feelings scattered like pieces of a train derailment. Too many things seem out of my control and I often find myself neck-deep in ugly cargo.
But to a great extent, I have also designed my survivorship experience. At some point — after recovering somewhat from cancer aftershock — I decided survivorship would not define me, but I would try my best to define what it should look like.
Here, then, are the ways in which I’ve decided to create a survival culture to help keep the Sword of Damocles at bay. Caveat: Each person is different, so what fuels my anxiety might alleviate others’ anxiety. That being said, here, then, are ways I’ve designed my survivorship to help minimize stress.
Control time on the Internet. Spending too much time on the Internet, reading too many impersonal articles on cancer hinders my emotional recovery. I get cancer-blitzed by information overload, and then I sometimes go to that dark place. This is, understandably, harmful to me. I also don’t fare well reading cancer-related material at the wrong time — before bedtime or in the middle of the night. Doing so stirs up too many triggers and leads to insomnia. Not healthy.
Limit my information sources. This goes hand-in-hand with my first point. My number one go-to sources for information are my doctors. I channel their knowledge into me and present my questions to them rather than Google, Ask.com, and the variety of websites out there. I’m lucky to have awesome physicians who are knowledgeable and treat me as the person I am, not just a patient.
Avoid toxic people and set boundaries. You can read more about this here.
Be my own guardian. I must monitor books I read and films I watch. It’s like I have an internal review board making decisions as to what’s appropriate for my psyche. Even before I was diagnosed with cancer, I found it difficult to watch movies where someone was dying of cancer.
Now I find it impossible.
As much as I want to, I cannot handle the stress of cancer-related print tomes and film.
For example, I wanted to see the movie The Fault in Our Stars and read the book on which it was based, but I knew I couldn’t handle it. When the movie finally made its way to the second-run cheap theaters, I came really close to buying a ticket for the show. I felt ready to handle it.
I was in good spirits, feeling rather upbeat. But then my inner censor kicked in and kept me from seeing the movie. As much as I wanted to go, I knew that doing so would be detrimental to my mental health.
I know I’m missing out on genres of excellent, quality cancer-related material, and this pains me. But I’m too vulnerable to partake in many cancer storylines, and this sometimes makes me feel like I’ve failed at some level. But, then again, it’s a strength to know what I can and cannot handle.
Stay connected to the human story and community. This seems contrary to the previous point, but I read as many cancer-related blog posts as I can because they 1) are outstanding pieces of literature that speak to me and 2) enhance my feeling of connection and community to other survivors. The human story is more powerful than objective information on a medical procedure, for example. At a fundraising event, I was chatting with a nice gentleman who, upon learning I was a blogger, raised the issue of what blogs have to offer the field of medicine. I replied, “The field of medicine needs these human stories.” Upon his quizzical look, I added, “Never underestimate the power of the human story.”
Lend voice to the cancer experience. The world needs our collective and individual voices. Cancer slam-dunked us into a cesspool, and we writers have the right to put our voices out into the world and be heard. As a survivor, I feel that bearing witness to the cancer and survivorship experience is cathartic and strengthens me.
How do you handle survivorship?
Do you feel you have designed your survivorship experience?
Tags: breast cancer, cancer, cancer survivor, cancer survivorship, cancer survivorship style, designing survivorship, survival strategies