The Meaning of Survival

(This was written for a speech that I was asked to give for a National Cancer Suvivor’s Day event)

When Ellen asked me to speak tonight, I was honored and somewhat surprised. I am only a 2 year survivor after all. There are certainly others involved with OSP who have lived with this scourge much longer than I. But, as I said, I am honored to be asked to share my story and will do what I can to explain what I have learned and about my concept of survivorship.

I am a current survivor of Stage 3 Ovarian Cancer. I say current because all of the people in the know that I talk to, remind me that ovarian cancer is a chronic disease and the likelihood of recurrence is pretty high. So I find that I live in a strange place between the expectation of its return and attempting to live in a way that allows me to move forward with my life. A delicate balance between today and the future.

I’m a pretty straight forward person. I like to know what I can anticipate and what the worst possible outcome might be to any situation. I ask questions and expect answers that are direct and helpful. I hate platitudes. I don’t have any desire to live wearing rosy colored glasses. But I do crave kindness with my reality. And appreciate black humor when needed.

I might go so far as to say that most of the “successful” survivors that I have met seem to share these qualities. Although I am not really sure what constitutes a successful survival. Perhaps it is finding a way to live a life that is bigger than your cancer while you have, and for some, after you have had cancer?

Every cancer is as individual as the individual who gets it. But, we also have some common ground as well. Not just as cancer patients, but as those who attempt to find ways to thrive even through cancer. There are attitudes and experiences that we seem to share. Discoveries that become obvious when you put us in a room together and we start to talk with each other.

We talk about how hard it is on some days to think of anything but our cancer. How on other days, we wish with all our might, that it would all just go away. That we could go back to the time of innocence BC, before cancer. To the time when each additional day was free of the balance between dread and gratitude. We share the indignities of treatments. Stories of our frustrations and embarrassments in hospitals, radiology and infusion labs and doctors offices. Discuss openly things like chest ports, needle sticks, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, pain and of course, death. Become familiar with terminology that send our GPs to their medical dictionaries and cause the eyes of friends and family to glaze over. Mostly, we share our fears. Fears that come from living close to our deaths. Our conversations sprinkled with a fair amount of dark humor as well.

So let’s be clearer – What is this thing we call survivorship in relationship to cancer? How is it different from living any “normal” life with the standard unknown time limit? There is an underlying purposefulness to being a survivor. For each of us that takes a different path. For me, I chose to and continue to choose to, follow my hearts dream. One year to the month of finding my tumor, I created a business where none had been before. Cut from whole cloth as they say. Fantasy turned reality for me.

I decided that I truly had no more time to waste. Taking my 30 years of retail experience, my network of artist friends and my admittedly arrogant belief in my own abilities, I opened an art gallery. And not just a general art gallery, nope, I opened a niche gallery focused exclusively on contemporary equine artwork. Hard to get more specific then that. I know that it may seem like an odd thing to do in such a time of economic hardship. But hey, when time feels like it might be running short, you have several choices. You can make the rest of your life all about the thing that is killing you. You can try hard to go on as you did before, which I hear is near to if not totally impossible. Or you take a giant leap of faith in yourself. I decided to LIVE a dream . My form of a bucket list – Start a business. One year in to it, low and behold my business appears to be successful. I will be honest and tell you that I often wonder what I was thinking. Opening an art gallery, when most of the ones I have known have closed their doors. And especially one with such a specific market. And what am I thinking to consider expanding it as I am now, when my cancer could come back any day. When ovarian cancer is considered chronic, especially risky in the first 5 years when statistics show a 61% death rate for Stage 3C and above in ovarian cancer. But, I will tell you that I feel like I am finally doing what I was meant to do. And that means something. It took 56 years and cancer for me to figure this out and I am not going to just let that go. Whether as a businesswoman, gallerist or as a cancer survival example – I was meant to be doing this.

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I recently started writing a short piece that I was thinking of submitting to the National Public Radio for one of their features, so I will leave you with that

This I Believe

I believe that you can’t be a survivor without being a warrior. Not a “soldier”. A warrior. Warriors are deeply powerful people. Protectors. Brave. Strong. Thoughtful. Intelligent. Capable. Spiritual. Cancer is not as some say, a battle. I believe that cancer is an all out war on the patient: body, mind and soul – and that you have to have a belief in your own self worth to be victorious. You have to believe that you matter. That you’re still being in the world has value and purpose. Survivors are not those who curl up in a corner and give up. We, cancer warriors, wear our scars proudly if not always publicly. We laugh and cry in the trenches, bonding with our fellow warriors, travelers, survivors. Our laughter is as strong as steel columns, holding us vertical and as fragile as the thinnest glass. The tears we shed are both heart wrenching and cleansing. We know the toll that our personal wars against cancer have taken on our souls. We are not naive about that. We can’t be. Forged in the fire of cancer, we may not carry a sword or gun, but I believe we are none the less, warriors. And as long as I am still here, I will be adding something unique and special to the world. Something needed. It is the reason that I am still alive. My life, my purpose. Still valid.

This I believe.

Juliet R. Harrison

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5 thoughts on “The Meaning of Survival

  1. Juliet — I am also an ovarian cancer survivor. Thanks for posting your speech. I appreciate how you expressed this, “…I live in a strange place between the expectation of its return and attempting to live in a way that allows me to move forward with my life.” It’s quite a balancing act to live acutely aware of the threat and mystery of death while still being obviously alive with things to do.

    I’m also very inspired by your opening the Equis gallery. Love art, love horses. What a great combination — I wish you much continued success.

    –Brenda

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    1. Dear Brenda – It means so much to know that my words hold true for my fellow “travelers” on this journey. Thank you so much for letting me know. I wish you all the best. Keep in touch. we are part of an unintended sisterhood. – Juliet

      Like

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