It’s taken about a week to process my very first National Cancer Survivors’ Day. I wasn’t prepared for the range of emotions – it was celebratory, uplifting, inspirational, moving, scary, sad – all the emotions that cancer survivorship elicits. So many people who have suffered so much were there to say that they still had hope.
At the conclusion of the Overlook Medical Center Reception to Honor Survivors 90 survivors and our families walked down to the high school track, where hundreds of people were gathered for the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life. The opening ceremonies began with survivors telling their stories and ending with “I am hope.” It was awful to hear stories of prostate, breast, brain, lung – so many horrible cancers. Especially heartbreaking was the boy who spoke of cancer in his young life. Despite the challenges each survivor faced, their story was ultimately about real hope.
The Relay for Life began with the survivors walking the first lap. Before we began, we were gathered on the track. A wonderful woman who had been introduced to me during the reception asked if I was alone. I stuttered, “I guess so,” because I didn’t initially know how to answer her question. I wasn’t alone – my husband, mother and two children were with me – but her question made me realize I wasn’t part of a group of survivors. She answered that I could walk with her and her friends, because this walk was very emotional and not something I should do alone. Her willingness to reach out and pull me into her group was a gift of inclusion given freely.
We started walking and all of the family members and supporters lined the track to cheer us on. And I do mean cheer! They were clapping, shouting, and yelling. I was a bit embarrassed, so I didn’t look over at the crowd initially. But, as soon as I got up the nerve, I was greatly rewarded. Person after person made direct eye contact with me and cheered, if only for a second, just for me. Now, I’m from the East Coast, we don’t easily make eye contact with people we don’t know. But here were hundreds of people cheering, not just for their own family member, but also for each one of us – letting us know how much they supported and appreciated our struggle.
There was only one other time in my life that I experienced such solidarity with a complete stranger. It was after 9/11. Being from New Jersey, we suffered a lot of personal loss that day. We lost people who were our family, friends, and neighbors. My family lost a very beautiful friend (my husband’s very close friend from high school). We also lost a neighbor, and two women we know lost their children. A few days after 9/11, we were driving on an interstate highway. I was sitting in the passenger seat, looking dolefully out the window. A car drove up beside us in the adjacent lane. The woman driver looked me in the eyes and gave me a sad smile. I gave her the same smile.
In that moment, moving at 65 mph on an interstate highway, that woman and I supported each other in our sadness. We understood what the other was feeling, despite being strangers. In that regard, we did in fact know each other. In that regard, we were united. I felt that same level of knowing when I walked that track. I felt united with every person cheering. We are in this together, because we have suffered together. We know what’s at stake, because we have suffered comparable losses. We have the very good fortune, however, to have each other.
And, to celebrate our good fortune, at the end of the first lap, our family and friends joined us on the track and walked a lap with us. My daughter and husband held my hands and I was almost speechless from emotion. What a lovely way to illustrate that solidarity. What a lovely way to share the glorious gift of each other and the support we bring into each other’s lives.
How did you celebrate National Survivor’s Day? Let me know and please tell me what it meant to you.
Survival > Existence,