It’s time I let you in on a little secret. For a few months now, I have been working under cover on a “secret” project. The project is an eGuide in which I have interviewed 20 cancer survivors, mainly breast cancer, to learn their “survivor secrets”.
Ever since I was about 17 years old (that’s a long time ago now!), I have had a keen interest in reading survivors’ stories, through their autobiographies. I believe, more than ever, that everyone has survived something in their life and it is actually our survivor story that connects us all.
Our survivor experiences are all different. Yours is just as compelling as anyone else’s, as it’s personal for you. One of the difficulties though, is that the connection comes through sharing your stories, your secrets. For most of us though, including myself for a long time, that puts you in a place where you feel way too vulnerable, so you miss the opportunity to connect with people who understand you.
This is where it started…
Stories are so powerful, as they enable you to visit a new place so you feel like you’re actually there. I started by reading stories from survivors of the prison camps in Germany, during the Second World War. I wanted to learn who they were and how they survived.
As I read each account, it touched me in a really personal way and it’s never left me. I cried as I read most of the stories. The atrocities these people faced were so deeply moving and I was struck by their courage, fortitude, vulnerability and compassion.
The survivors, will to live
Each of their stories embodied an intense drive to stay alive, despite their conditions and circumstances; how they helped and inspired each other, even though it put them at risk of death themselves and how some survived and some didn’t.
One of the most compelling feelings that I took away was that so many people died just after special occasions like Christmas, birthdays and Easter—why? Because they simply lost hope. They had put an expiry date on their experience and they set an expectation that wasn’t delivered and one that they had no direct control over.
They had held on with the hope of being rescued and that kept them going. When the rescue didn’t come, they simply gave up all hope and died. It was the loss of hope that took them to a place where they no longer felt that they had anything to live for.
Sharing “secrets” gave them new life
What also struck me, was that the ones that still had hope, encouraged the others. They shared that there was no one way or right or wrong way that got them through it. They each shared their “secrets” for survival with each other and that gave them something new to draw on when they went to a place of despair.
They faced the very real possibility that each breath they took could have been their last. In the end, they had made it through together and freedom came, but their circumstances had bound them into a community forever. None of them would have chosen it, but nonetheless, they couldn’t change it either.
The emergence of survivor guilt
From what I have read since, being rescued was not what they had thought it might be. As it was when they were freed that “survivor guilt” first emerged, as those people who had survived felt they could have done more to help those that died. That really tugs on my heart with all they had endured themselves, they still felt guilt. Telling their story was a way for them to heal.
Why tell your story?
They chose to tell their stories because they held the belief that no one would have ever believed what they went through unless they shared their personal account. It was a way to enable understanding from society. While the movie “Schindler’s List” surprised and shocked so many people, I had read stories like those years before and was settled that so now many more people had the opportunity to understand it and connect with it in some way. Perhaps, even draw on it when they faced a survivor experience themselves.
Drawing on it during your survivor experience
In fact, as I think back now, it may have even been their survivor stories that I drew on while I faced my own cancer experience.
I know that I needed to look for hope and read the stories of other women who had faced a breast cancer diagnosis and that gave me the hope I was looking for. I knew that I had to focus on what I could control rather than what I couldn’t.
The thing that I didn’t find readily was “survivor secrets”. What were the actions they took to get them through the challenges they faced? What did they do to get their mindset in the right place to survive? What did they draw on when they went to a place of despair? In hindsight, what do they know now, that they wish they had known then?
Cancer survivor share their “secrets” for you
As I said earlier, for the past few months I have been interviewing cancer survivors and asking them to share their “secrets”—their stories, challenges and actions they took to overcome them.