I’ve had countless conversations with fellow survivors on the topic of whether we are an “inspiration” to others through our fight against cancer. Some survivors embrace it, myself included. However, some are almost offended by the notion. (Disclaimer: I don’t believe either side is right or wrong. I always preface any discussion of someone’s feelings towards cancer as extremely personal, which can never be judged as right or wrong).
The idea of being an inspiration is something I find myself thinking about constantly. For those survivors who do not see themselves as an inspiration, the most common reaction I’ve heard is that she/he believes that they just simply showed up for treatment and did what anyone else in their shoes would’ve done.
One particular conversation that stands out was during my First Descents trip. I sat with one of my fellow amazing survivors, overlooking the Rogue River during our lunch break. It was so peaceful. We were relaxing back in Adirondack chairs, sun on our faces, watching the breathtaking flow of the river beside us. I’m not even sure how the topic came up really. Nevertheless, my friend (I’ll call her C. for short), who had been struck by cancer at a young age, began to tell me her opinions on the subject. Like many others, she did not believe that she was any kind of inspiration. In fact, she gave a good eyeroll about the whole thing. She thought that she had simply done what the doctors told her and that was it.
In reply, I shared with her my opinion. She was an inspiration. She faced an incredibly traumatic diagnosis, a particularly rare form of cancer especially given her age and her medical history. Yes, she did what her doctors told her, but she did it. Some can’t even face that decision (ex. I’ve met a few patients who refused further treatment). Then, she took her experiences and wrote her own blog. First Descents wasn’t even her first trip with an organization that challenged survivors through whitewater kayaking. Just months prior, she had been kayaking in Colorado with another organization, which she then began volunteering with. She was always smiling and joking. C. just emanated an air of happiness. So, even if to no one else, she was an inspiration to me.
As our trip came to a close, during our last group talk, C. told us all that her opinion on the idea of being an inspiration had completely changed. She now embraced the idea, not just in relation to herself and her fight, but in relation to all of us on that trip.
Another incredible survivor I met through First Descents felt very similar to C. about his experience with cancer. Again, he felt that he had just gone through the motions of treatment and that was that. Mind you, he suffered three bouts of cancer beginning when he was just nineteen-years-old, resulting in a stem cell transplant and multiple surgeries to remove several body parts affected by the cancer. I can undoubtedly say that he was not just my inspiration, but a resounding inspiration to each and every one of us. He had been through so much, yet he was one of the funniest, kindest, gentlest men I ever had the privilege to meet. To say he was a true gentleman is a huge understatement.
In talking with him, I told him that he was indeed an inspiration. In thinking that he wasn’t, I felt that it diminished all that he had suffered and his tireless fight to continue to be so strong. I’m honestly not sure how he felt about my opinion. We didn’t much talk about it further. I certainly didn’t intend to change his feelings on the subject. Again, whatever he felt is his own and there is no judgment towards those feelings. However, I did want him to know how I viewed him and his life, his challenges and his resounding resilience in the face of so much.
As for me, yes, I do see myself as an inspiration. Actually, as I sit here today writing this post, I’ve received two emails telling me how inspiring and moving my story is – one person saying it brought them to tears. I am truly honored when someone says that I have inspired them. If you think about it, people consider having cancer as one of the worst things that could ever happen. To see someone fight so hard in the face of such an overwhelming disease does demonstrate the power and resilience of the human spirit. And this is not to say that those we have lost did not fight hard enough, or gave up in any way. The idea that we are an inspiration simply means that someone can look at us, take what we have been through and honor our fight.