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What it Means to Survive

Power of Words

Together with Sharon Bray – teacher and author of two books on writing and health – CKN welcomes you to our new Writing Series where Sharon helps readers tap into the healing power of writing during difficult times.  As Sharon puts it, “Your stories matter. You are your stories. Our stories shape us and act as the lens through which we see the world. It’s through story that we make sense of our lives, reclaim our voices, and learn our words can touch others’ hearts.”  Follow along with this bi-monthly series with Sharon and please send us your stories….they matter to us.



I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night. — Galileo

“At first I was afraid, I was petrified …”  You might not remember the 1979 hit, “I will survive,” by Gloria Gaynor, but at the time, it was my theme song.  I’d suddenly become a widow and single mother, living three thousand miles from my closest family members.  I was terrified and overwhelmed.  How would I manage?  What could I do?  A short time later, a friend sent me Gaynor’s single. It took only one listen to prompt me into playing it again and again as I danced wildly around the living room and belted out “And I grew strong and I learned how to get along… I will survive” along with Gaynor.  Now, decades later, “I will survive” remains one of the most famous of all disco-era songs and Gaynor’s single biggest hit.  The lyrics became a mantra for me as I struggled to believe that I, too, would survive the heartache and trauma of a loved one’s loss. 

We are all challenged to survive the hardships that life presents, whether loss, life-threatening illness, trauma or other difficulties.  The term,“survivor” has become a common term in the cancer lexicon, used to define anyone living with cancer, terminal or not. It’s little wonder, because for those who face a cancer diagnosis, thoughts of survival dominate each day:  surviving surgeries, treatments, and, hopefully, cancer itself. 

“Survivor” can also be used to describe anyone at many difficult times in life.  Check the definition of “survivor” in The Oxford English Dictionary, and you’ll find “a person remaining alive after an event in which others have died,” such as the 9/11 survivors or those who survived the sinking of the Titanic.  It also is a term Oxford defines as “a person who copes well with difficulties in… life,” since crises and difficulties are part of being human.  

A few years ago, as I was preparing for a “Writing Through Cancer” session at San Diego Cancer Center, N., living with Stage Four metastatic breast cancer, arrived early and quietly handed me an envelope.  “Wait to open it until everyone arrives,” she said.  A short time later, when everyone was seated, I opened her card, surprised to see the words, “Happy Birthday” on the front.  It wasn’t my birthday or N’s.  “Wait and see,” she said.  “Everyone will have a birthday sometime.”  As I opened the card, we all heard Gloria Gaynor belting out “I will survive.”  Everyone burst out laughing.  N. smiled and shrugged her shoulders. “We’re all survivors,” she said.  Indeed we are.  

What ignites our will to survive, helps us cope and keep going?  It’s different for all of us and yet, so much the same.  Hope is surely one of those things that strengthens our resolve to overcome the odds.  The support of friends and loved ones are also important to our will to survive.  Even anticipation of an important life event can ignite your determination to continue living or surmount obstacles.  

A., a beloved writing group member with a terminal cancer diagnosis, showed us courage and the will to live fully for as long as she could, filling her days with family, friends, travel, and joy. She was determined to be on hand for her first grandchild’s birth, even though the odds were stacked against her.  Just one month before her death, her grandson was born, and A. was present for his birth, able to hold him in her arms and see him daily for the few weeks she had left to live.  I have no doubt that his impending arrival strengthened her determination to survive as long as possible and experience the joy of her grandson’s arrival.  

During a writing group session a few years ago, I posed a question to a group of cancer writers at Stanford Cancer Center:  “What keeps you intent on surviving cancer?” One of the members, who has since recovered from colon cancer, wrote a short poem, “Why I Need to Survive,” using the words of her young children in each line.  Her words show us how very important the love of our children and family can be in strengthening our will to survive: 

Mommy, the trees look like boogers on sticks.
Mommy, can we walk to the sunset?
Mommy, how did God make the ocean?
Mommy, next time will you be my mommy?
Because I don’t want the other mommies.
I only want you.

( A. Meyers, used with permission)

One of the men who participated in that same group had survived acute lymphoblastic leukemia for a full five years after his initial diagnosis.  He, too, was intent on living as long as he possibly could.  He wrote poignantly, often humorously, and honestly about his cancer battle in the group and later, on his personal blog.  A year before his death, he sent me an essay titled “What I’ve Learned,” summarizing lessons learned during his cancer journey.  Among the many bits of wisdom gained during his illness, he reminded us that survival, no matter how lengthy, is about living fully for as long as we have.  Life, he reminded us, is terminal sooner or later for all of us.  Among his survival tips were:

·     Work at what you love…

·     Travel light.

·     Do what the doctors tell you.

·     Offer support when you can and it will come back to you when you need it.  

·     Cherish the ones you cherish.

·     In the end, all your physical beauty and prowess will leave you. You must still love that person in the mirror.

·     We all will die eventually, so find a way to face death without fear. Don’t dwell on death, but enjoy each day as best you can.

(J. Fiore, personal communication)

What does it mean to survive?  The men and women who have come to write deeply and honestly about their cancer journeys have taught me that in life, we are faced with challenges, heartbreak, trauma and serious illness at some time in our lives.  What matters most is that we concentrate on life, living fully for however long we have.  Poet Ellen Bass illustrates this wisdom in a poem entitled “Relax.” 

There’s a Buddhist story of a woman chased by a tiger.
When she comes to a cliff, she sees a sturdy vine
and climbs half way down. But there’s also a tiger below.
And two mice—one white, one black—scurry out
and begin to gnaw at the vine. At this point
she notices a wild strawberry growing from a crevice.
She looks up, down, at the mice.
Then she eats the strawberry.
So here’s the view, the breeze, the pulse
in your throat. Your wallet will be stolen, you’ll get fat,
slip on the bathroom tiles of a foreign hotel
and crack your hip. You’ll be lonely.
Oh taste how sweet and tart
the red juice is, how the tiny seeds
crunch between your teeth.

(From:  “Relax,” In:  Like a Beggar, 2014)

Writing Suggestions: 

Why do you need to survive?  What life difficulties, illness or heartbreak have you overcome or endured?  What keeps you going?  What ignited your will, that indomitable human spirit that refuses to give up or give in?  What have you learned about survival from cancer?  Explore the topic of survival and what it means to you. 



Let us hear from you!  CKN will select and publish your responses to the suggested writing prompts from Sharon.  Send them to Karen Irwin.  500 word limit.



SharonBraySmallSharon Bray, Ed.D., is the author of two books on writing and health: A Healing Journey: Writing Together through Breast Cancer and When Words Heal: Writing Through Cancer. Her blog site,, features weekly reflective essays and writing prompts for anyone writing out of illness, pain or life struggle. She leads a number of expressive writing workshops for cancer survivors and teaches creative nonfiction and transformational writing for UCLA extension Writers’ Program. She earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto.



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