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Get down off your cross

I just met you on a bus, and we would really like to get to know each other, but I've got to get off at the next stop, so you're going to tell me three things about yourself that just define you as a person, three things about yourself that will help me understand who you are, three things that just get to your very essence. And what I'm wondering is, of those three things, is any one of them surviving some kind of trauma? Cancer survivor, rape survivor, Holocaust survivor, incest survivor.

Ever notice how we tend to identify ourselves by our wounds? And where I have seen this survivor identity have the most consequences is in the cancer community. And I've been around this community for a long time, because I've been a hospice and a hospital chaplain for almost 30 years. And in 2005, I was working at a big cancer center when I received the news that my mother had breast cancer. And then five days later, I received the news that I had breast cancer. My mother and I can be competitive — (Laughter) — but I was really not trying to compete with her on this one. And in fact, I thought, well, if you have to have cancer, it's pretty convenient to be working at a place that treats it.

But this is what I heard from a lot of outraged people. What? You're the chaplain. You should be immune. Like, maybe I should have just gotten off with a warning instead of an actual ticket, because I'm on the force. So I did get my treatment at the cancer center where I worked, which was amazingly convenient, and I had chemotherapy and a mastectomy, and a saline implant put in, and so before I say another word, let me just say right now, this is the fake one. (Laughter) I have found that I need to get that out of the way, because I'll see somebody go "Oh, I know it's this one." And then I'll move or I'll gesture and they'll go, "No, it's that one." So now you know.

I learned a lot being a patient, and one of the surprising things was that only a small part of the cancer experience is about medicine. Most of it is about feelings and faith and losing and finding your identity and discovering strength and flexibility you never even knew you had. It's about realizing that the most important things in life are not things at all, but relationships, and it's about laughing in the face of uncertainty and learning that the way to get out of almost anything is to say, "I have cancer."

So the other thing I learned was that I don't have to take on "cancer survivor" as my identity, but, boy, are there powerful forces pushing me to do just that. Now, don't, please, misunderstand me. Cancer organizations and the drive for early screening and cancer awareness and cancer research have normalized cancer, and this is a wonderful thing. We can now talk about cancer without whispering. We can talk about cancer and we can support one another. But sometimes, it feels like people go a little overboard and they start telling us how we're going to feel.

So about a week after my surgery, we had a houseguest. That was probably our first mistake. And keep in mind that at this point in my life I had been a chaplain for over 20 years, and issues like dying and death and the meaning of life, these are all things I'd been yakking about forever. So at dinner that night, our houseguest proceeds to stretch his arms up over his head, and say, "You know, Deb, now you're really going to learn what's important. Yes, you are going to make some big changes in your life, and now you're going to start thinking about your death. Yep, this cancer is your wakeup call." Now, these are golden words coming from someone who is speaking about their own experience, but when someone is telling you how you are going to feel, it's instant crap. The only reason I did not kill him with my bare hands was because I could not lift my right arm. But I did say a really bad word to him, followed by a regular word, that — (Laughter) — made my husband say, "She's on narcotics." (Laughter) And then after my treatment, it just felt like everyone was telling me what my experience was going to mean. "Oh, this means you're going to be doing the walk." "Oh, this means you're coming to the luncheon." "This means you're going to be wearing the pink ribbon and the pink t-shirt and the headband and the earrings and the bracelet and the panties." Panties. No, seriously, google it. (Laughter) How is that raising awareness? Only my husband should be seeing my panties. (Laughter) He's pretty aware of cancer already.

It was at that point where I felt like, oh my God, this is just taking over my life. And that's when I told myself, claim your experience. Don't let it claim you. We all know that the way to cope with trauma, with loss, with any life-changing experience, is to find meaning. But here's the thing: No one can tell us what our experience means. We have to decide what it means. And it doesn't have to be some gigantic, extroverted meaning. We don't all have to start a foundation or an organization or write a book or make a documentary. Meaning can be quiet and introverted. Maybe we make one small decision about our lives that can bring about big change.

Many years ago, I had a patient, just a wonderful young man who was loved by the staff, and so it was something of a shock to us to realize that he had no friends. He lived by himself, he would come in for chemotherapy by himself, he would receive his treatment, and then he'd walk home alone. And I even asked him. I said, "Hey, how come you never bring a friend with you?" And he said, "I don't really have any friends." But he had tons of friends on the infusion floor. We all loved him, and people were going in and out of his room all the time. So at his last chemo, we sang him the song and we put the crown on his head and we blew the bubbles, and then I asked him, I said, "So what are you going to do now?" And he answered, "Make friends." And he did. He started volunteering and he made friends there, and he began going to a church and he made friends there, and at Christmas he invited my husband and me to a party in his apartment, and the place was filled with his friends. Claim your experience. Don't let it claim you. He decided that the meaning of his experience was to know the joy of friendship, and then learn to make friends.

So what about you? How are you going to find meaning in your crappy experience? It could be a recent one, or it could be one that you've been carrying around for a really long time. It's never too late to change what it means, because meaning is dynamic. What it means today may not be what it means a year from now, or 10 years from now. It's never too late to become someone other than simply a survivor. Hear how static that word sounds? Survivor. No movement, no growth. Claim your experience. Don't let it claim you, because if you do, I believe you will become trapped, you will not grow, you will not evolve.

But of course, sometimes it's not outside pressures that cause us to take on that identity of survivor. Sometimes we just like the perks. Sometimes there's a payoff. But then we get stuck. Now, one of the first things I learned as a chaplain intern was the three C's of the chaplain's job: Comfort, clarify and, when necessary, confront or challenge. Now, we all pretty much love the comforting and the clarifying. The confronting, not so much.

One of the other things that I loved about being a chaplain was seeing patients a year, or even several years after their treatment, because it was just really cool to see how they had changed and how their lives had evolved and what had happened to them. So I was thrilled one day to get a page down into the lobby of the clinic from a patient who I had seen the year before, and she was there with her two adult daughters, who I also knew, for her one year follow-up exam. So I got down to the lobby, and they were ecstatic because she had just gotten all of her test results back and she was NED: No Evidence of Disease. Which I used to think meant Not Entirely Dead. So they were ecstatic, we sat down to visit, and it was so weird, because within two minutes, she started retelling me the story of her diagnosis and her surgery and her chemo, even though, as her chaplain, I saw her every week, and so I knew this story. And she was using words like suffering, agony, struggle. And she ended her story with, "I felt crucified." And at that point, her two daughters got up and said, "We're going to go get coffee." And they left. Tell me three things about yourself before the next stop. People were leaving the bus before she even got to number two or number three. So I handed her a tissue, and I gave her a hug, and then, because I really cared for this woman, I said, "Get down off your cross." And she said, "What?"

And I repeated, "Get down off your cross." And to her credit, she could talk about her reasons for embracing and then clinging to this identity. It got her a lot of attention. People were taking care of her for a change. But now, it was having the opposite effect. It was pushing people away. People kept leaving to get coffee. She felt crucified by her experience, but she didn't want to let that crucified self die. Now, perhaps you are thinking I was a little harsh with her, so I must tell you that I was speaking out of my own experience. Many, many years before, I had been fired from a job that I loved, and I would not stop talking about my innocence and the injustice and the betrayal and the decrepit, until finally, just like this woman, people were walking away from me, until I finally realized I wasn't just processing my feelings, I was feeding them. I didn't want to let that crucified self die. But we all know that with any resurrection story, you have to die first. The Christian story, Jesus was dead a whole day in the tomb before he was resurrected. And I believe that for us, being in the tomb means doing our own deep inner work around our wounds and allowing ourselves to be healed. We have to let that crucified self die so that a new self, a truer self, is born. We have to let that old story go so that a new story, a truer story, can be told. Claim your experience. Don't let it claim you.

What if there were no survivors, meaning, what if people decided to just claim their trauma as an experience instead of taking it on as an identity? Maybe it would be the end of being trapped in our wounds and the beginning of amazing self-exploration and discovery and growth. Maybe it would be the start of defining ourselves by who we have become and who we are becoming.

So perhaps survivor was not one of the three things that you would tell me. No matter. I just want you all to know that I am really glad that we are on this bus together, and this is my stop.

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