Last week I went to a focus group at the Smith Center for Healing and the Arts. The focus group was aimed at young adult cancer survivors (ages 15-39). Don’t scoff. Yes, I am 40. No, I’m no longer considered a “young adult.” BUT, I was diagnosed at 38 which puts me in the illustrious category of being a “young adult cancer survivor” or YAC. But I digress …
The survivors in attendance were invited to share experiences with friends and friendship before, during and after diagnosis and treatment. Turns out that the Smith Center is considering developing a program aimed at training/educating friends of survivors and volunteers in the YAC community to learn how to “be there” during diagnosis, treatment, survivorship and through to end-of-life if necessary. Kind of a hot topic for me given the fact that, oh, I just wrote a whole freakin’ book about the topic!
Anyhoo, the thing that has been stuck in my head for a whole week isn’t just how cool it is that the Smith Center is thinking about a program that is perfectly aligned with my book. Don’t get me wrong — it is so unbelievably cool that I was walking on sunshine for several days. What really stuck with me, though, was a conversation I had with another survivor after the focus group had ended. Specifically, we were talking about how hard it is to delineate between “simply surviving” and “thriving.”
I don’t think this is an uncommon feeling among survivors. When you receive a cancer diagnosis it sort of puts a hold on your life. Everything seems to be whizzing past you as you stand still. It’s disconcerting, especially for young adults, who are facing so many challenges just by virtue of being young and on their own for the first time.
We didn’t come up with an answer during our conversation; it was more about bonding than problem solving. But it continues to vex me because there are a lot of people in my age group that are simply surviving regardless of whether they’ve had cancer or not. Hell – I think there are people of ALL age groups that are simply surviving with no clue how to thrive. When we’re stuck in survival mode, how do we make the transition from simply surviving to thriving?
If there was an easy answer to that question then I’d be a millionaire. I don’t know the answer. I think I know the path though … and in my estimation that’s the key to thriving. Finding your path … finding what invigorates you … finding what sets your heart afire … THAT’S thriving. Standing in place waiting? That’s just surviving.
Once you find the path, you’ll be called to walk it. Oh sure, it’s laden with potholes and hairpin turns and nary a road sign to be seen. But you KNOW when you’re on it. You can feel it. And that feeling will be what sustains you during the long stretches of loneliness and doubt.
I know it sounds like crap. But you only think that because you’re not on your path. You’re either standing still or wandering in the wilderness. If you feel lost, I offer you this: just pick a direction. Any direction. Find a sunny path lined with art or books or exercise or whatever it is that revs you up. Now go in that direction. If it turns out that you’re not that into it, guess what? You can turn around. You can find another path. As Martha Beck said in her book, Finding Your Way in a Wild New World, “To thrive in our wild new world, you’d be well advised to play until you can’t think.”
Well – for me – there is no alternative any more. I am running full tilt down this path I’m on … and I’ll keep running until I reach a dead end. Then, I’ll cut a path of my own because that’s what thriving looks like to me.
P.S. For updates on my book release (set for March 11, 2015), you can go to my website. The book is titled, “Why is She Acting So Weird? A Guide to Cultivating Closeness When a Friend is in Crisis.”
P.P.S. Smith Center for Healing and the Arts is a nonprofit health, education and arts organization based in Washington, DC. They specifically offer programs for adults living with cancer and their caregivers, patient navigation and programs promoting the use of arts in healing. All in all an amazing local resource for anyone staring down the face of cancer or other illness. Check them out.