What Helped Get Me Through: Cancer Survivors Share Wisdom and Hope

Dr. Julie K. Silver, diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 38, in 2003, is an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.

Cancer survivors park 2

Cancer survivors park, New Orleans, LA (Photo credit: Loco Steve)

A physiatrist, she specializes in physical rehabilitation for cancer patients.

When a friend of hers was diagnosed with cancer and asked how she could help her family cope, Dr. Silver decided she needed to ask 5-, 10- and 20-year survivors how they and their families had coped.

The result was a web site where she asked survivors:

  • How did you nurture yourself?
  • How did your family help?
  • How did friends make a difference?
  • What helped your children cope?
  • How did you change your diet, exercise, spiritual practices?
  • How did you relieve stress?
  • What do you wish you had known when you were diagnosed?
  • What helped you heal?
  • How has cancer changed your life?

Quotes from every one of the hundreds who responded are included in the book that resulted, What Helped Me Get Through: Cancer Survivors Share Wisdom and Hope, published by the American Cancer Society.

Samples from nurturing yourself include:

  • A colon cancer survivor, 66 years at diagnosis, started a necklace, adding a bead every time she made it to a positive event, like a birthday, holiday or anniversary.
  • A breast cancer survivor, 32 years at diagnosis, started scrapbooking with a kit her survivor aunt gave her, motivating her to fight for her husband and children when she saw their pictures in the scrapbook.

Family helped by:

  • A breast cancer survivor, 28 years at diagnosis; her husband shaved his head when she lost her hair to chemo
  • A Hodgkin and breast cancer survivor, 17 and 51 years at diagnosis; her husband gave her a gold medallion, engraved “two-time winner”

Friends helped by:

  • A friend of a uterine cancer survivor, 42 years at diagnosis, put a container on the back porch where friends could drop off treats for her and the kids
  • The gift of laughter: A friend of a thyroid and breast cancer survivor, 34 and 43 years at diagnosis, gave her a “Hooters” t-shirt after her mastectomy

Friends also helped by appointing a Minister of Information to be a coordinating point for friends’ requests to help and a Captain of Kindness to pay attention to the children in the family.

Children were helped to cope by:

  • A long-term lymphoma survivor, whose children were 1, 3, and 5 when she was diagnosed, advised, “Tell your children the truth and include them in the crisis.”
  • A colon cancer survivor, 42 years at diagnosis, found “My nine-year-old son wanted to know everything about it, asked a lot of the hard questions…Now he’s in a PhD program in medical biology, planning to do cancer-related research.”

What helped them get through:

  • A liver cancer survivor, 32 years at diagnosis, put a to-do list on the kitchen table. “Anyone who stopped by and wanted to help would just look on the list and pick one or two things to do for me.”
  • An ovarian cancer survivor, 51 years at diagnosis, learned a colleague had put out postcards at a women’s conference and invited attendees to send her notes. “About two weeks after the conference, I began receiving three or four postcards in the mail each day. This went on for a month!”

What does it mean to be a survivor?

  • A breast cancer survivor, 47 years at diagnosis, “It’s like background music that only other survivors can hear.”
  • A breast cancer survivor, 37 years at diagnosis, “I’m hope, grace and mercy walking. I’m literally flying without wings, one day at a time.”

What have you learned?

Breast cancer survivor, 37 years at diagnosis:

“What I finally learned is that cancer is a dual journey: one of the head that involves information and choosing treatment, and one of the heart and soul that is much more complicated because it has to do with the person who will emerge from the caner experience. I have come to know that the treatment part is about being cured, and the heart part is about being healed.”

Dr. Silver is still collecting survivor stories at her web site.

You can order her book here, What Helped Me Get Through: Cancer Survivors Share Wisdom and Hope.


Carol Covin, Granny-Guru

Author, “Who Gets to Name Grandma? The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers

Follow our cancer survivor series by email here: Subscribe to New Grandmas Rock! » Cancer Survivors by Email



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