I have a cancer survivor friend who has become a victim of the disease. He has let the diagnosis of several years back claim not only his past, but his future. Cancer took control of his life without permission, and now even though it is gone, it still rules his world. In his view his life is ruined and he is perpetually traumatized by all that happened as a result. The fact that it showed up unannounced “proved” to him how little control he has over things, so why even try? Even when questioned about what he really wants out of life, his attitude is one of “It’s not going to happen so why ask? It just makes it harder to deal with the challenges. I just have to deal with what is in front of me and not expect anything else.”
Survivorship and believing yourself to be victim – or acting as if you are one – are in direct opposition to each other and to life.
This is not just a cancer issue, cancer just happens to be my obvious example. Survivorship and its impending challenges, joys and difficulties, happens after financial devastation, unexpected career shifts and divorce. Becoming a survivor is a process in which you choose to make decisions that support forward movement instead of wallowing in the events that have drug you down. It can be an immediate state of mind, it can come long after the event, or it can be an elusive state that is desired but never embodied. Like my friend, we can physically survive an event, but that does not mean that we have re-engaged in living.
The opportunity to be a survivor may be thrust upon us but we have a choice to take it on or ignore it. We may make it through the series of traumatic events that landed us here, but how whole we emerge from it in depends on us. To be a survivor requires making a choice to take your life into your hands and to own it.
In his book Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzales explores the science and facts behind who survives a traumatic experience and who becomes a victim of it. Writing primarily about wilderness accidents, he says “psychologists who study survival say that people who are rule followers don’t do as well as those who are of independent mind and spirit.” (pg85) He goes on to explore why outdoor adventurers who have planned thoroughly , are highly trained, experienced and most of all consciously prepared for danger, make terrible deadly decisions that run counter to everything they should have known.
His research shows how some people are so connected to the “plan” that when faced with all evidence pointing to why the plan should change, they continue to push onwards. They cannot revise their vision of what they want to match their current reality. Rethinking their situation and goals would allow for new avenues of possibility -and survival – but instead they keep moving forward based on information that is no longer relevant to their current situation. The mechanism of the mind that keeps saying that if you just keep looking you will find the trail gets you more and more lost – the reality is that you are alone in the dark and need to conserve your resources and come up with a new plan.
Our original life plan is full of goals, hopes and dreams …then a major traumatic event interrupts. We just want to get through it alive and in one piece. For cancer survivors, other people step in during diagnosis and treatment and take control telling you what needs to be done, keeping you moving through necessary procedures and boosting you along emotionally on the river of treatment like a life-raft. While you are fighting the disease you are focused and have a definite idea of what outcome you want. The path is clear in front of you and there is a definite course of action. The parts of the fight for your life that are uncomfortable are tinged in a rosy glow of purpose. There is a plan, and, if you are one of the lucky ones, in the end, the plan works and you are disease free. You are surrounded by people who help you along the path and you clearly intend to return to the real world at the end of it and rejoin your well-planned life.
One would think that in living through a life threatening disease this is where the battle ends, but it is only the beginning. Not preparing for post-trauma survivorship is like climbing to the top of Everest thinking that the real work is done and now “all you have to do” is get back down. There is great danger in not realizing that the journey home is as equally fraught with risk, and perhaps more so as now that the goal has been met and we surround ourselves in thoughts about returning to the real world.
If you are reading this, unlike the explorers in Gonzales book, your initial “plan” worked out – and you like me, have survived the initial traumatic event . But we are now entering into a whole different survival adventure that requires of us fresh perspective and new choices. Killing cancer cells, getting the divorce, or spending months without a job was not the battle. These were only the events that got us to the point of having to show up in the moment and revise our plans. Survivorship is what happens AFTER. Our work as survivors begins when we actively chose to reengage in a different life than we had before – moving forward instead of staying stuck in the event or in what we used to be. The airplane has crashed – but how we live on the island is actually the piece that is the most important and the most interesting.
We cannot return to the way things were. We cannot waste our precious time wishing things were otherwise. We cannot stay stuck in the trauma that we have been through. In order to survive we must re-create our reality. We must remain flexible and alert to signs of possibility. We are still in a critical state of action that requires our intention to be clear, just as when we were fighting the battle.
At the end of Deep Survival Gonzales has an appendix called “Rules of Adventure” in which he lists 12 points that seem to be universal in “how survivors think and behave in the midst of a difficult situation”. Some of them include the obvious like keeping calm; others are more unusual like playing and seeing the beauty around you even in the middle of a dire situation.
The last point stands out: “Never give up – let nothing break your spirit”.
While we are fighting the battle surrounded by support staying on the forward moving track may be relatively easy, but afterwards – when we really embody survivorship – are our spirits intact? As we have had to revise our plans (maybe multiple times) ; now that the world and our lives are different than what we counted on, are we our best person? As we deal with all the changes, feel more alone and people no longer seem as actively supportive as they were when we were in crisis, are we still our own hero? Have we been able to let go of all that we wanted, and instead adapt to all that is? Are we still dreaming big and making plans for our new lives instead of wishing that we could return to how it was before?
Survivorship is rising above and beyond what happened to us. It is about taking the reins and dealing with EVERYTHING that happened to us – especially our actions after situations that were thrust on us and seem to be beyond our control. Survivorship is about looking at where we were and where we are now and choosing to move beyond both. Though it may seem unjust that we are presented with the challenges we face, we are being tested and given an opportunity to rise above. How far we rise depends on each of us.
( For more information please read: Deep Survival: Who lives, Who Dies and Why, Laurence Gonzales, 2003, W.W.Norton)
(parts of this were used by Providence Regional Medical Center Cancer Resource Center for cancer patient support resources)