Suddenly I stopped on a page when I was flipping through my history textbook. Transfixed by a photo of concentration camp survivors recently rescued, I studied the image closely. They were all weak from malnourishment and you could see their ribs. Many had cuts and scars from forced labor or abuse. All their heads were shaved and they wore the same uniform to strip them of their identity. Everything was taken from them, and they were dehumanized. I could not help but think that this photo is printed in potentially thousands of copies of history books to represent what concentration camp survivors looked like.
To think of what a survivor is, an important question begs to be answered: “What did they survive?” Clues like the uniforms and bulging bones give context to what they endured to now be considered a survivor. People can survive all kinds of things. Like cancer survivors, painted as sadly thin, protruding veins, bald heads, surgery scars, missing body parts, weak, and the same hospital gown unifom or ribbon with respective color(s). Do we tend to view cancer survivors similarly to how we view war survivors; both suffering unimaginable pain and terror, often with visual and mental differences or indications of a survivor?
Survivorship does not necessarily depict a weak, helpless, or dehumanized person who had just enough strength to survive. However, cancer is like fighting a war. A one-man war within yourself where you are your only ally and the enemy is within. Physically, your body and organs fail. Mentally, you must keep yourself going strong, but can’t help crying when visitors leave, both leaving scars. But surviving this war is more than the image of the scars, the loss of hair, and in some cases, the loss of body parts that cause you to stick out like a sore thumb, for better or for worse. Gradually, you regain weight and strength (in many more ways than you may initially realize), your natural skin color returns, your hair grows out, and you’re free from the restraints of hospital gowns.
Survivorship is more than the helpless image people like to create to associate with what you endured. Surviving is walking across the stage at my high school graduation eight days after my last round of chemotherapy. Surviving is starting college three months after my last round of chemo and two weeks after my last surgery. It’s playing around with hats, scarves, and awkward in-between-length hairstyles. It’s pushing myself to make the dean’s list during my first semester of college (of which I am still on to this day). It’s walking into my biannual oncologist checkup and the nurses not recognizing me at first. It’s my oncologist hugging me and nearly breaking out in tears seeing the difference from a weak, scared, and frail girl to a strong and healthy woman. It’s knowing that if I have the strength to beat cancer, I have the strength to do anything, if I try.
Survivorship, to me, is breaking the stigma that having cancer is the end. While it is still such a traumatic event that affects many people and their families, it is still possible to achieve your dreams despite navigating such a difficult obstacle. Survivors are just normal people who were dealt some difficult cards, and we play them the best we can, just like anyone else.