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My Wishes For Cancer Survivors

Merryl Reichbach (left), keynote speaker for the event, and Anna Zabniak.

[From the Keynote Speech written and presented by Merryl Reichbach, LCSW, Program Manager of SHAREing & CAREing at Elmhurst’s National Cancer Survivors Day Celebration 2017]

My name is Merryl Reichbach and I am a clinical social worker and the Program Manager of SHAREing and CAREing (S&C), a 24 year old cancer support services center in Astoria serving all of Queens. I am happy to be here today with all of you.

I am a therapist and I like to think I have lots of good ideas, but probably the most useful thing I do for my patients is listen. Survivors often share feelings therapists that they may resist sharing with loved ones. I’m sure you can all relate to this. There is often a fear of burdening loved ones with our feelings. Also, cancer and treatment can be so disorienting, the words may simply not be easy to find or easy to say. And we don’t live in a world that necessarily wants to hear certain kinds of stories when it comes to cancer.

So I know that it takes special strength to cope, endure and thrive. And I also know that being a survivor means different things for different people. And sometimes you feel like a survivor and sometimes you don’t. But one thing survivors have in common is that this illness brings out aspects of our personality that are extraordinarily human. These facets of ourselves often sit protected in the background, but with cancer, they come up in full force. Our vulnerability is laid bare over and over. Our faith is tested as we are brought to extremes. Living one moment at a time can be the only option when moments are nearly impossible to endure.

It can be hard when we have to reach for faith and seek support on an ongoing basis. It can be hard to be so needy for those of us used to thinking of ourselves as independent and self-reliant. Often we are the ones used to being helpful to others. Cancer can turn independent people into vulnerable ones and selfish people into caretakers.

SHAREing & CAREing has a group of longstanding survivors who meet monthly. One thing I love about working with survivors is that while each person has their own unique story, what they all have in common is the wish to share their story in the hopes of helping someone else.

Today, I’m going to share some of what I’ve learned from survivors. Some are simply wishes, others are skills and attitudes that can be useful. These are all suggestions that have been helpful to someone at some point. Hopefully you will hear one or two nuggets to help you on your journey.

Survivors, I wish that you value and love yourselves so much that you take care of yourself. You are asked to be more actively self-caring than you probably ever thought you would have to be. That is not being selfish! Though I realize that for some of you, it feels like it is. I wish you the freedom to say yes when you mean yes and no when you mean no, and to trust your choices.

May you receive the gift of viewing yourself through the same eyes as the person who loves you most sees you—as unique, and lovable, and beautiful just as you are. Someone worth feeding well, treating your body with exquisite care. I wish you meals that are delicious, that you can taste and enjoy and digest. Eaten in good company. I wish you many walks in nature, drinking lots of fresh water and hugs with people who love and care about you. I wish you passion and sex—as you want it—with partners who recognize that all that you have survived makes you more precious and more desirable.

May you share many joyful moments with people who get you. And if they don’t understand what you need, are willing to listen and learn. They do not try to fix you—or change what cannot be changed. People who accept you as you are: human and whole.

I wish you many nights of peaceful sleep where you are not kept awake fearing that you will lose your healthcare or stressed about any financial impact of this illness.

May you not have a single moment of wondering what you did to deserve this. No one deserves cancer. I wish you freedom from second guessing your life and choices.

When you are waiting for a phone call about a scan result, may you remember to steady your breathing and focus your mind. Remember to relax your shoulders. May you have a shoulder to cry on, or a hand to high five—depending on how you feel about the news you receive. May your most beautiful memories be yet to come. I wish your time unfolds gently, not in rushes of anxiety and fear, but in a smooth flow like a river that buoys you up and carries you along. May your life be light.

I wish you health care providers who communicate clearly. If you aren’t sure about something, summon the strength to ask the questions and gather the tools you need to remember what you learn. May you find all the resources you need to cope with challenges as they come.

For those times when everything hits at once, when you feel deflated or overwhelmed—and we all have them—I wish you to remember and reconnect to the strength you had when you faced and mastered your most difficult challenge.

You know what you are capable of. You know how precious life is and how precious your life is to the world.

I wish that there is always something beautiful available to you: a compassionate face, a cat in the window, a soft pillow, someone holding hope for you when you are unable to hold it for yourself.

May you have the capacity you need to deal with the contradictions cancer presents to you: between feeling fine and knowing this is a serious illness; between your treatment often feeling more brutal than your disease. And while no one who is a survivor would wish this for themselves, it is also true that going through this teaches us lessons that we are grateful for, whether it’s appreciating little gifts that escaped notice before, repairing a torn relationship and making amends, or letting go of someone or something that you can’t sustain.

I am thinking of a survivor who now finds her high pressure career, internet dating and renovating her home “pretty easy” compared to cancer which sidelined her for almost a year. I am thinking of a man who used to struggle with saying “I love you.” He does not have trouble with that anymore and his loved ones are happy about that. I am thinking of another man whose cancer derailed his medical studies for 3 years. He is a physician and researcher now and talks about how he often draws on his experience as a patient to be a more empathic doctor.

I want to also wish, for those of us who provide health services, the strength to do the work we are called to do. May we have the reserves we need to be both vulnerable and strong, useful to our patients while also living full lives with our friends and families. I wish us all endless reserves of eloquence and clarity, and the genius communication skills we need to express complicated information that can be difficult to receive. I wish you all the inner and outer resources you need to do your work, knowing that things that have little to do with healing and treatment often impact our work in forceful ways.

So… Those are my wishes for us all. May at least one or two anchor you or lift you up.

And for those times when you don’t have it all together, and there will be some, please remember us as SHAREing & CAREing. We have created a safe space for everyone of any age impacted by cancer—including survivors, providers, friends and family members—to express their feelings, and gather practical and emotional resources to cope with diagnosis, treatment and beyond. We offer some navigation, support groups, counseling, wellness workshops in-house and throughout NYC, and many other services free of charge. We are here and we are committed to assisting you every step of the way.

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