“You deserve a life.”
― John Green, The Fault in Our Stars
The photo above is of my two youngest adorable granddaughters. I have six altogether. I’ve been extremely blessed to see four of them born since my diagnosis of ovarian and endomemtrial cancer in 1997. My good friend, Judy, diagnosed the same month, year and stage as I, passed away before she became a grandmother. When I see the photos of her beautiful grandchildren now, it’s very bittersweet. I’m so sad that Judy never had the chance to revel in grandmotherhood, but it also makes me aware that I am so fortunate that I have not one but six granddaughters, all of whom have brought me joy and such gratitude for just being alive. But am I deserving of this?
A young woman in my community who found out she has stage 4 triple negative breast cancer keeps the whole town updated on her journey via facebook. Because she felt traditional treatments had nothing effective to offer her, she took her family with five children to Austria for experimental treatments not offered in the U.S. The community has been raising funds for this trip and the treatments she will receive. They sent her off with pink balloons in a limo to the airport. She is usually very upbeat in her facebook posts. She has been reporting on the trip and checking in at the hospital. She is in fight mode and is hopeful for a cure.
The doctor who is offering these miracle treatments, when they finally met in person, asked her “Do you want to be Healed? Do you believe you deserve to be healed? Do you believe you can be Healed? I’m not sure why he asked these questions but perhaps he was saying that in order to be healed, you have to want it, believe you deserve it, and believe that it can happen. Her musing on this was heartbreaking to me. She said she was, at first, confident in saying “yes, yes, yes!” But after considering it further, she said she is not so sure she believes she deserves to be healed. Why? Because so many women have died with the same diagnosis and they were “precious mothers, wives, daughters, sisters and friends”. Why should she be spared?
The reason this is so heartbreaking to me is because I get it. I’ve survived 16 years after my diagnosis. In those years, I have lost countless friends in the cancer community. I’ve recently been thinking a lot about why I am here and they aren’t. I think we always ask why. When we’re diagnosed, we ask why did this happen to me? What did I do wrong? Similarly, when we survive, I think it’s normal to ask why? Why did I survive when so many have not?
Statements have been made to me by well-meaning people whose explanation for it is simple. “God has a plan for you”, or “You must’ve done something right.” As if I were more deserving to live than anyone else? I don’t accept this. In fact, there are little niggling thoughts that come into my head that say, “you’re undeserving”. “What have you done to deserve to still be here?” “How do you justify your survival?” Have I always made healthy choices physically, emotionally and spiritually these last 16 years? Absolutely not. It’s called survivor’s guilt. Yup. I have it. It’s not commonly discussed among survivors. I think it’s because it seems somewhat self-indulgent. The unspoken message is “just be grateful and move on.” Not so simple.
So, is the word “deserve” even appropriate here? Deserve implies some reward for something done. According to the dictionary deserve means to merit, be qualified for, or have a claim to (reward, assistance, punishment, etc.) because of actions, qualities, or situation. Am I deserving? I’m just a flawed human being – albeit somewhat more enlightened now – trying my best to be a good person, just like Judy, Sarah, and all of the other women I know who are fighting cancer or have lost their lives to it.
Cancer, just like life, doesn’t really have any rhyme or reason. Some die, some don’t. Surviving cancer, while it’s something to be very grateful for, is not like winning a game, being a victor. At least not for me. I came through a war. I survived. I lost comrades. There were fallen warriors along the way. The losses are too great to celebrate victory. I’m here. I’m neither more or less deserving to live than they were. We all had lots to live for and the desire to survive, especially the young women with their whole lives ahead of them and young children to raise. I’m here. They’re not. There is no reasoning.
All I know is that living my life as best I can is a memorial to them and I will never walk away from the cause. I do it for them. I do it for myself. And I do it for all of the women who have yet to be diagnosed and who will be where I was – fighting for their lives. Do I deserve to have survived? Absolutely. But so did all of the other wonderful women who didn’t.
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