Sunday is an important day, a day to celebrate being alive.
We sometimes forget to do that -- when was the last time you sent up a hallelujah or two? -- so it's good to be reminded once in a while.
The day, June 3, is Cancer Survivors Day, a celebration aimed at the some 6 million of us Americans living with a cancer diagnosis. Despite the number -- and I guess it's impressive -- the more I thought about it and the more I talked with "survivors," the more convinced I became that the day is too limiting.
Everyone should celebrate. We're all survivors. If you're alive right now, you're a survivor.
That's the lesson you learn from cancer survivors (or from anyone who has glimpsed his or her mortality). This moment right now is the one to hallelujah about because it's the only one you have for sure.
Smart people, these emerging new leaders in cancer survivorship (a spirited national advocacy/support movement that is, as one woman put it, "growing like crazy"). Although they don't start the survivorship meter at birth, they do insist that it starts running from the moment of diagnosis, regardless of the time after that.
"It is at that point that your life changes," says Fitzhugh Mullan, 47, author of "Vital Signs, a Young Doctor's Struggle With Cancer," and president and a founder of the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship (NCCS).
"Whether you live two weeks, 10 years or 25 years, if you've been told you have cancer, you're a survivor," says Ellen Stovall, 43, Gaithersburg, who was first diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease in 1971 at age 24 and had a recurrence in 1984. "You've survived one of the greatest insults."
Cancer survivors are putting less and less stock in such things as the five-year mark.
"I, like most people with cancer, never celebrated a 'cure day,' " writes Mullan in the NCCS newsletter. "I could never be sure when the disease (a rare and aggressive cancer manifested in a large chest mass when he was 32 years old) passed out of my life and I certainly never found a clinical date -- like one year or five years -- to be very satisfying."
There are too many variables, survivors say, too many different kinds of cancer, too many recurrences, for individuals to hang their lives on what seem like arbitrary numbers.
"The concept of surviving is important to feel from the moment of diagnosis," says Stovall, who heads an upcoming NCCS convention in Washington at which former Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas, a six-year survivor of lymph node cancer, will be the keynote speaker.
Says Edith Lenneberg, 66, of Albuquerque, another NCCS founder and a 25-year survivor of ovarian cancer:
"We should be helping people to cherish each day rather than waiting. Some people feel they can't breathe easy until their five years are up ... That's wasting a lot of time."
And that's what cancer survivors don't believe in. "One thing that cancer taught me is that I am responsible for my own happiness," says Catherine L. Logan, 45, Albuquerque, the third NCCS founder and now its executive director. She had invasive cervical cancer 11 years ago.
"The primary goal of NCCS," as declared in its newsletter, "is to generate a nationwide awareness of survivorship, showing that there can be a vibrant, productive life after the diagnosis of cancer." The Networker, with its lively pictures and testimonials of men and women of all ages and races from all over the country -- always with an extra notation like "colo-rectal, 4 years," or "lung, 6 years," or "breast, 10 years," or "bone, 2 years" -- attests to that.
Another goal of NCCS: to facilitate communication among people involved with cancer survivorship or, as Mullan puts it, "the veterans helping the rookies."
Adds Stovall, "We've been in the trenches. No one else can understand what we mean by living."
And survivors love to talk about living. Here are a few more notes -- words from the pros -- gleaned through telephone conversations with a few of the people who will stand up to be counted next Sunday:
From Howard Brown, 70, Frederick, Md., a former C & P Telephone marketing manager who 2 1/2 years ago was diagnosed with stage-four non-Hodgkin's lymphoma:
"Read everything you can find on the mind/body connection, particularly Joan Borysenko and Norman Cousins. I've learned to practice imagery -- it's getting more vivid as the time goes on -- and I'm absolutely convinced that I wouldn't be here without it. With this type of disease you expect the blood count to go way down, and I've been able to keep mine way up there.
"If, as biofeedback shows us, we can control such things as skin temperature, why can't we change our white blood count?
"But whatever happens, don't let anyone give you a defeatist attitude. If your chances are 10 to one, why can't you be the one, rather than put yourself with the nine?
"And finally, for your remaining days, whatever they may be, don't keep hitting yourself over the head with your cancer."
From Edith Lenneberg: "Everyone needs support, at least a wise and compassionate telephone friend who can help you piece it all together. Find one. Local organizations can help put you in touch with someone.
"Remember that there's a wonderful network of people out there to connect with. If you'll pardon my putting it this way, it's sort of like the Rotary Club; no matter where you go you'll have a friend."
Natalie Davis Spingarn, author of "Hanging in There: Living Well on Borrowed Time," president of the Greater Washington Coalition for Cancer Survivorship and a 15-year metastatic breast cancer survivor:
"Although it's most unwelcome, the enormous experience of cancer just may enrich as it changes your life. I think I'm trying to give something back, because a lot of people have put in a lot of effort to keep me here today."
From actor Jack Klugman, 68, a survivor since 1983 of throat cancer and a speaker at Sunday's celebration at the American Cancer Society headquarters in Atlanta:
"I've always been a survivor, but cancer has strengthened my will. It has become a conscious thing now to survive.
"There's no question that you begin to smell the roses. I look -- I really look now -- and I am thrilled at the beauty around me.
"When you touch your mortality, what used to be tragedies are mere inconveniences. We must be grateful and thankful for what is, and not even think about what isn't.
"We are living proof, all of us, that we can survive, and we must give that message to the world."
Celebrating National Cancer Survivors Day "is a day to plant trees ... hug and walk barefoot in the grass," says National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship president Fitzhugh Mullan of Garrett Park.
The day will be marked in Washington at a 2 p.m. celebration Sunday at the Washington Hospital Center's East Building Recreation Room, 100 Irving St. NW.
Speakers will include Natalie Davis Spingarn, author of the Survivors' Bill of Rights and president of the Greater Washington Coalition for Cancer Survivorship, and freelance TV producer Ellen Kingsley. The Voices of Praise gospel singers of Florida Avenue Baptist Church will sing.
Cancer Survivors Day is sponsored nationally by NCCS, the American Cancer Society and Coping magazine. Information or reservations, (202) 483-2600.
For information on NCCS membership, including a quarterly newsletter, write NCCS, Dept. C, 323 Eighth St. SW, Albuquerque, N.M. 87102; (505) 764-9956.