In searching for inspiration for this blog, I went back to the FORCE message boards to remember when and how the previvor movement began. When I started FORCE, long before the organization and programs grew to the national influence that we are today, we were merely a message board, a way for people in similar situations to connect virtually. The Internet was new to me then, and the ability to reach out to virtual strangers remotely and receive comfort and guidance seemed novel and amazing. When I couldn’t find the support I needed in my immediate vicinity, I could reach out over the miles, type an SOS, and get instant wisdom, advice, and compassion. I could then draw from that support when and where I needed it (and back then I needed it a lot). Over the years many of these "strangers" have been my lifeline and many have become my dear friends. Fourteen years of survivorship later, I still periodically turn to my cyberfamily, but like many who have been part of our community for over a decade, time can sometimes softened the sharp edges of fear, loss, and grief that surrounded my diagnosis, recurrence, genetic testing, and surgeries and my accompanying need for support.
It has been a while since I revisited the archives of our website. With over 300,000 posts in our current database and over 300,000 archived posts, our message boards are the single largest repository of the hereditary cancer experience. These postings are a wealth of wisdom, support, kindness, grief, and gratitude. After 14 years of advocacy, it’s easy to focus on the challenges, the frustrations, and the problems we have yet to solve. So revisiting the past is healthy, and provides me with an opportunity to remember old friends and reflect on my growth and the growth of the organization. Occasionally I will encounter a post that stops me in my tracks and reminds me of the sacred and transcendent segments of my own hereditary cancer journey and that of our members.
The last Wednesday in September has been designated as Previvor Day, and this year it happens to fall on Yom Kippur. The convergence of the two led me to two message board posts from over a decade ago that currently reside in our Pearls of Wisdom forum, where older timeless posts live so that others can revisit them when needed.
The first pearl addresses Previvor Day. In the “I need a label” thread, our dear “Jordan,” who was a regular on our message boards back then, articulated what many in our community were feeling—that although they did not have cancer, they had experienced decisions, losses, and procedures that separated them from average-risk women, but they did not have a cancer diagnosis. Jordan posted:
"Ok, I have to admit. I need a label. Do we have one? You know, those that have the gene but have not had cancer. The ones going through all this research and deciding on proph surgeries, or not. We need more of a voice and a label, a name. I've never been one hung up on labels before but a lot has changed for me since this process begun. I feel if we had a label we could begin to have more of a voice. What are your thoughts? FORCE? Breast Cancer __________ (fill in the blank)."
Jordan, and the group of high-risk women who shared her concerns, recognized that they were cancer stakeholders who shouldered a heavy burden: ongoing doctor appointments; frequent biopsies and screenings; fear; loss of relatives to cancer, and sometimes loss of breasts, ovaries, and fertility; and changes in body image, all due to the risk of cancer. Jordan also felt that uniting the segment of the community that didn’t have cancer could promote more awareness, prevention, and surveillance research, and begin to fill their huge unmet need for support and resources.
A sometimes serious and sometimes silly discussion of how to address this gap, both online and off, followed. The medical community at the time used the term “unaffected carrier” for someone who carries a mutation but isn’t affected by cancer. But in addition to sounding dismissive, that label didn’t include members of our community who were very high risk by virtue of a strong family history of cancer without a mutation, LCIS, or high exposure to radiation. Yet these people were living with the same concerns, fears, decisions, and need for support as others in our community. Eventually “previvor” (for “survivor of a predisposition to cancer”) was chosen as our label of choice, because we all felt that those living with high risk are survivors in their own right. Not everyone embraced the term initially (and many still don’t), but for that moment, previvor resonated with many and filled a need that would allow our community to unite and advocate on issues surrounding cancer risk, detection, and prevention. These issues were separate from resources and research focused on treatment but equally important.
“AmiH,” a member of FORCE’s board of directors and our volunteer webmaster, observed “that the word 'survivor' comes from the Latin root meaning 'to live'.” That connection also resonated with many previvors who felt that the knowledge of their risk and the management options available to them increased their chance to live longer, healthier lives. Not everyone wants or likes a label, and we totally understand that. Some particularly dislike “previvor,” and we get that too. But being able to identify and validate an important group of high-risk stakeholders has led to a revolution resulting in much more awareness, resources, research, and support today than we ever had in the past.
The second pearl comes from a thread started by 'SusanZ' [Ziva] shortly after Jordan’s. “My guardian angel, a Yom Kippur lament” is one of the most heartwrenching articulations of previvorship. It captures the devastation and impact of HBOC on entire families. I hope you will read the entire thread, but here are some of the most poignant excerpts:
“Tonight is Yom Kippur. It is certainly a day to reflect on one's own life. In the past, I have done that in a synagogue. This year I am doing that by my sister's hospital bedside watching her die from breast cancer. I wanted desperately to ask her to be my guardian angel from heaven…I didn't have the courage to ask this of her yet…the reality is that in her death she remains true to how she lived, she has continued to be my guardian angel by getting genetic testing. I have found out I am BRCA positive in time to protect myself. In her death she has saved my life, and the lives of many family members.”
In a later post, Ziva writes,
“Tomorrow afternoon I have an appointment with my second PS [plastic surgeon]… and if there is no significant change in my sister's status, I plan to walk across the hospital to his office and make that appointment. As Linda leaves this world I am going to fight to stay.”
“I am overwhelmed by your responses…Yesterday I did what I said I would. I kissed her good-bye…and marched across the hospital in defiance of this disease and met my 2nd PS [plastic surgeon].”
and then this last heart-breaking post,
“My sister, Linda, died this evening at 6:30 as the Sukkot holiday rolled in. I closed my eyes and again asked my sister to forgive all my insults and past hurts that occur between people who love intensely, and be my guardian angel. Your support on this website has been so important to me. You are the ones who can really understand.”
Ziva and her family have remained involved with FORCE as passionate volunteers over the ensuing years, providing guidance, outreach, and support to others. Last night, 12 years after her initial post, Ziva revisited her thread and added these thought-provoking words:
“Well, it is 12 years now since I lost Linda, and all the above is still relevant and true for me. An update: I now have a beautiful and delightful 20-month old granddaughter named Maya Linda! I think she has my sister Linda's smile and sometimes I feel Linda (and my mother) watching over us with love and grace. Maya Linda brings me the kind of joy I found so difficult to feel since my sister's death. This is such a blessing.
I believe there is something quite spiritual in sharing one's stories with others who listen with respect and compassion and then listening to others willing to share their stories. In this way we can feel connected, significant, and develop courage. Thank you FORCE family for listening and sharing. Our connection gives me hope and courage.”
Ziva, thank you on behalf of all of us. As always your words have captured the essence of our community and of FORCE. This uniting of the community impacted by HBOC—those with cancer and those without—was the goal almost 14 years ago when I founded FORCE: to connect us through our shared experiences, and despite our differences to bring each of us courage, support, and hope for today and future generations.
Happy Previvor Day.
Be empowered and be well.