Cancer survivorship: My paradigm shift

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cancersurvivorship_CR_RD.JPGBy Cristina Rodriguez

I'm a 30-year-old non-Hodgkin lymphoma fighter. It's not all that I am, but it's all I'm focused on at the moment. The purpose of my blog, lymphomamaniac, is manifold.

I shared in a previous blog entry that "I heart MD Anderson." Well, I'm saying it again, but this time with resounding emphasis and fervor: I heart MD Anderson! 

What epic event caused this sudden influx of "that loving" feeling?" The Anderson Network 24th Annual Cancer Survivorship Conference.

This two-day weekend event was exactly what the doctor ordered. It was food for my mind, my body, my soul and my spirit. 

It caused a much-needed paradigm shift in my brain -- an "a-ha moment," if you will. Oprah would be proud. 

Me, a survivor?
I'd seen the pamphlets and posters around MD Anderson announcing this event and it seemed interesting, but I wasn't sure it was something I should go to considering the word "survivorship." Why, you ask? It's because up until this weekend, I didn't consider myself a survivor.

The American Cancer Society defines a person as a cancer survivor "from the time of diagnosis throughout the balance of his or her life." I always had a problem with that definition. 

It's the last part that's my problem - that pesky, "balance of his or her life" part. For cancer patients, there's always that fear of "what if." Yeah, I'll just say it. What if I don't make it? What if I never get to hear the word "remission?" 

It doesn't mean I believe those questions but, nevertheless, they're always looming. If I don't make it, am I not a survivor? The people who have lost their lives to cancer, are they not survivors? The word "remission," to me, was synonymous with "cancer survivor."

How was I to consider myself a survivor if I wasn't in remission? I thought attending this "survivorship" conference would be weird since I didn't consider myself one. 

Push in the right direction

I got the push I needed to go when a good friend who works at MD Anderson sent me an email suggesting that I attend, along with all the information I needed to sign up. Talk about a push in the right direction.

I rearranged my medical appointments for that Friday and registered to attend, along with my husband. 

We arrived bright and early the first day of the conference and walked up to the registration table to get our name cards and "swag bag."
"How long have you been a survivor," a volunteer asked. This question perplexed me because I wasn't in remission and felt like an impostor. "Great, now they're going to know I don't belong here," I thought to myself.

I must have looked confused because then she asked me when I was diagnosed, and proceeded to hand me a yellow lanyard for my name card. Apparently, yellow was for first-year survivors. "OK, if you say so," I thought.

Pleasantly surprised
I though the first session I'd signed us up for was diet and relaxation tips, but it turns out I'd registered for "Yesterday, today and tomorrow: Strategies for long-term survivorship." I was wrong, yet pleasantly surprised.   

The speaker came to the podium and her first question was, "When did you first consider yourself a survivor?" She wanted to see a show of hands and for us to share our experiences in reference to that question. I thought, "great again, dummy. You signed up for the wrong session."

Wrong again. As people began to share their experiences, I found myself nodding in agreement. I could relate. 

The speaker then brought up the definition of a cancer survivor. Survivorship did not mean "remission" and it did not diminish the battle of those that had passed on because of cancer. She said that the battle, the daily struggles against cancer, made us all survivors. Death is not a loss to cancer and it did not belittle the battle so bravely fought. 

It was at that moment that the light bulb turned on in my head. My a-ha moment had arrived. I began to cry as a lady talked about when she realized just that. It was like she was inside my head, saying the very thing I was feeling in that moment. 

Over and over, people stated that they hadn't felt like survivors until they understood that concept and I instantly felt complete, knowing that I wasn't alone. I wasn't broken after all. I was only human.

Always a survivor

My love for MD Anderson grew that day with its definition of a cancer survivor. Even if I never hear the word "remission" or even if cancer takes my life, I will always be a survivor. 

I will never forget all of the survivors who I had the privilege of meeting that weekend, my new friends for life:
  • The girl who's fought brain cancer for nine years and who continues to fight 
  • The prostate cancer patient who's my age and is "watching and waiting"
  • The 20-something woman who beat brain cancer at age 9  
  • The young woman who had her leg amputated due to bone cancer at age 13, and who is now a nurse on the same floor at MD Anderson
  • The talented violinist at our banquet dinner who, seven years ago, was told she would not survive
They are beating the odds and so am I, regardless of the outcome.

The rest of the conference served as therapy for my husband and me. Highlights included:
  • Compliments on my "do" (newly resurfacing hair) were abundant and very much welcomed
  • Our many new friends, including a few who work at MD Anderson as volunteers, and a whole group of young survivors just like me
  • My joy as my husband told me how he felt a huge weight off his shoulders just by meeting other spouses who have walked in his shoes
  • Our excitement as we got to meet and snag a photo with Dr. Ronald DePinho,  president of the cancer treatment center that's second to none  
And the best part? I know with absolute certainty that, no matter what, I AM A SURVIVOR.

I heart MD Anderson. Sigh ... Mi'amour.

Save the date for the 2013 Cancer Survivorship Conference Sept. 27-28, 2013 at the Omni Houston Westside. 

Read more posts by Cristina Rodriguez

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