It was the annual fund-raising event for the Hope Lodge, my temporary home after a bone marrow transplant. The host asked all the survivors to step forward from the crowd. I froze. I didn’t know if that word applied to me. What does it mean to be a survivor? I certainly didn’t feel like one. Not yet, anyway.
The first time anyone used the word “survivor” in reference to me, I had just been admitted to the bone marrow transplant unit of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. A nurse came into my hospital room to review the transplant calendar with me. The transplant had been looming on the horizon ever since my diagnosis with leukemia in May 2011. The nurse briefed me on the sequence of events: intensive chemotherapy, followed by the transplant, and then a four- to six-week hospitalization. I noticed something on the calendar that I hadn’t seen before.
“What’s that?” I asked her, pointing to a meeting scheduled for three months out. The box on the calendar was marked “Survivorship Meeting.” She explained that it was an orientation for patients navigating the world after a transplant. At first, I felt uncomfortable and then a little angry to see that the meeting was planned for three months away. It may as well have been set for 2015. It was hard to imagine ever getting there. As I tried to prepare for a life-threatening transplant to treat my life-threatening disease, I wondered if I would survive to attend the survivorship meeting.
In the cancer world, the term “survivor” is as ubiquitous as it is hard to define. Some cancer patients I’ve talked to feel that it’s too much territory to cover for a single word — every cancer patient has a different diagnosis, a different prognosis.
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