Someone asked me recently what is feels like to be a cancer survivor, how I felt about being known as a cancer survivor. It’s a complicated question because being a survivor is not something I volunteered to be, it is a title where I participated in the fight of my life to claim, it’s not a conscious choice I made. I never wanted to become a Survivor. I had to be a survivor.
Like most other head and neck cancer survivors I was physically and emotionally scarred by the end of my treatment. By that time, almost 14 years ago, I was transformed into a kind of living zombie. After experiencing 34 radiation treatments that cooked my skin, scarred my throat, destroyed my thyroid, saliva glands and teeth, paralyzed one of my vocal chords, all ending with a partial neck dissection that left a giant zippered scar, I was left shell-shocked and in a drug induced haze. At that point, treatment abruptly stopped and I was instantly awarded the title of survivor. That day began a “one day at a time” struggle back to some kind of life we survivors call “the new normal”.
Now, almost 15 years later, people look at me and say awkward stuff all the time like, “I can hardly tell you had cancer”, or “at least you still have some of your voice”, or “you look ok now”. As survivors, most of us have become accustomed to these insensitive remarks by well meaning but ignorant people. But please know this; being a survivor is not what I really wanted. What I really wanted is not to have experienced cancer at all. Once you have it, it lives with you forever. A recurrence is always just one check-up away. Every bump, every sore throat, every strange ache that “normal” people shrug off are potential life-ending events for me, causing days of angst and sleep-disturbed nights. Simple daily acts like eating, a joy that most people take for granted, are a constant struggle for me, requiring intense concentration and constant coughing to avoid choking or developing aspirational phenomena.
People say to me all the time, “15 Years, wow you are definitely cured”. Well, I don’t feel cured. I feel alive, but my existence comes with recurring emotional ups and downs that result from living with a genetic time-bomb in my DNA that could go off again at any moment. For me, that faint ticking in the background of my day to day existence will never go away.
So, I do survive, but it’s still one day at a time. I can never forget that. I survived today, I will try to survive again tomorrow. Each day of survival is a small victory, a mile-marker on a journey of an unknown length. So, yeah, you call me a survivor, but the word itself really doesn’t hold much meaning to me. What is important to me is being called a good father, a loving husband, and a doting grandfather. Those are true labels of substance and accomplishment. Surviving cancer was not a voluntary choice, it was a necessary means to accomplish the most important goals of my life.