Why do survivors give?

One breast cancer survivor I know, devotes hundreds of hours to the American Cancer Society.  A lymphoma victor runs a wigs, scarves and beauty items discount store for patients.  Another, in remission for years, spends evenings counseling new cancer patients on their journey.  Nationally, major drives and organizations depend on cancer patients for muscle, money and moral.  One would think that these men and women would want to forget, close the clinic door and walk away.  So, why do they give so much?

I have generally viewed this intense involvement of survivors with cancer causes as part of a powerful and positive coping mechanism. By contributing their time and energy to help and work toward cures, it puts the disease in perspective.  They are the one’s in control. In addition, there is a healing camaraderie between survivors, amplified by working together to defeat the disease.  Cancer patients direct the anxiety and pain caused by the diagnosis and treatment towards mending other patients and society.

Many patients develop a defensive response to what they have experienced.  They do not want other people to suffer.  Hurt deeply, they hope that by their giving and work, that maybe one child, one mother or one friend, will not suffer as they did.  This altruistic response, “never again,” says much positive about each patient and about the human spirit.

In a recent piece in the New York Times, Samuel Scheffler, PhD, suggested to me perhaps a third factor which may contribute to the motivation of cancer heroes.  In, The Importance of the Afterlife. Seriously, Scheffler, a professor of philosophy at New York University, makes an unusual observation.  Human beings need to believe not that they will live on after death, but that other people will be alive after they have died.  He stated that if we believed that all human life would stop when we died that we would lose our purpose in life.

Postulating that a meteor will destroy the earth 30 days after our death, Scheffler exposed the resulting futility. What happens to the architect who builds for the future?  Why bother?  The politician trying to make a better world? What for?  The egotistic tycoon devoted to his own glory.  What is glory if there is no one to give tribute?  Why bear children? And, of course, the cancer researcher seeking a cure.  What a waste of time if the end is so near.  Why should we even care about saving the planet if there will be no future generations?

Contemplating this remarkable idea, that life would be stripped of meaning if my grandchildren, if everyone’s grandchildren, would not outlive me, I found myself thinking of cancer survivors.  Perhaps, this need to believe in a future, even after they are gone, a better future, a future without the dread disease, is a major part of why they give.  Having faced death and come to better understand its reality, cancer patients have a closer connection to a tomorrow over the horizon.  They are called to protect and heal those that will follow. In return, in a small way, future generations give meaning to each cancer patient’s life and the miracle of their survival.

Those who have been touched by the dread disease are vital in the fight to prevent, treat and cure cancer.  They give heart to our efforts and ground us in reality.  In return, I hope that they find laughter, comfort and love.  I also pray that the millions of men and women who will follow will remember their sacrifice and in turn give survivors peace in their lives.


  • Mary
    Some of us give out of a profound sense of gratitude that we CAN give. Case in point yesterday - I received a call a few days ago from a friend who is in clinical trial treatment for met. melanoma. Things weren't going well and onc had called a meeting to discuss options. She asked me to go with her and I immediately said yes. So I cancelled my appts, took the day off for personal leave, drove 2 hours to meet her at the clinic. When we met in the lobby her relief was apparent and she said "I am so glad but why do you come?" And my response was "because I am well enough to do so." Sure I don't want people to suffer and sending a check works for that. BUT getting me to step out of my daily business - GRATITUDE does it every time!
  • Liz
    Scheffler is nuts in my opinion. What is he? A relapsed existentialist trying to nail a cloud to a rock only because it is a cloudless day he has to first manufacture a cloud (and probably the rock too)??? On the one hand life would be pretty grim if you didn't believe, on some fundamental level, that life goes on after you die… but if you think about evolution (and yes I believe that behavior has an inherited component, the evidence is strong for a strong "nature" component with nurture affecting how the nature is or is not expressed) this is also a survival of the group behavior - caring for others, caring about their future even if ours will not be as long as theirs...otherwise I am sure more of us would, metaphorically speaking, eat our young, as some species do. (Heaven knows I have been tempted on occasion when my kid behaves as if she has more in common with an alien brat than a human being, except she'd probably taste as nasty as she can, at times, behave LOL). I'd suspect some people give back because that is who they are, If they hadn't had cancer they'd give back in other ways to other "causes". Many of them probably gave back prior to cancer, and with some of them having cancer was the impetus to give back via cancer related "causes"/"efforts". For some others, I am sure, because it helps them cope. Others out of gratefulness that someone did this for them and are paying it forward… and yet others for a multitude of personal reasons that don't neatly fall into common categories… I, for example, started some orphanages in schools in Cambodia after I adopted my child, as I couldn't stand to walk away from that level of abject poverty and not look back. And because a Cambodian asked me to, thinking I was a rich American (I was in graduate school at the time so I had to also find people to pay for this as I could not). Doing that doesn't fall under any of the reasons given. I have stepped forward with support for family, friends, acquaintances, and also on occasion with strangers with cancer who happen to cross my path, but it is neither a goal nor mission in my life. I have done it because at the time I could, it is what people do (or should do - eg help others), and I had something to offer that would/could maybe help them… again, not for any of the reasons mentioned. Then you have the wacko cancer groups that expect you to define yourself by your cancer for the rest of your life. Breast cancer comes to mind (and I have had that on both sides). Some of the groups with that push a culture and a norm that you are forever defined by having breast cancer and are practically expected to give back, be involved in prescribed ways and never escape the grip of having had BC. They model that as how you are supposed to think, act and feel if you have had BC. I think for some people this gives them a purpose in their life they didn't have before as well...I thank my lucky stars and then some that non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (another cancer I have) isn't caught up in ribbons and pushing guilt if you try to get on with your life and not define yourself by having or having had cancer. I can imagine not giving back for a variety of reasons as well (because after all if you are trying to explain giving back you also have to understand why people don't) - you need to move on with your life get cancer to let go of its grip on your life. Or you have been so traumatized by everything that has happened with respect to cancer you can't bring yourself to become involved in giving back in this arena. Or cancer is what happened to you, it is not who you are and your life is defined by other things and thus you focus your efforts on what is important to you (after all if we are in a car wreck, had a heart attack... most of us do not dedicate our lives to groups preventing car wrecks, heart attacks… either - what the heck is so "special" about cancer that almost requires us to "give back"???), you are narcissistic so why should you give back?, you are too busy dealing with your existing responsibilities and are unwilling to add more, you have other "causes" that are more important to you than cancer... Human behavior is complex… Reasons for giving back and in what way is probably just as varied as what drives other human behavior.
    • I love the honesty in this response. And I agree the reasons for giving are varied - probably as varied as the reasons for not giving. We can know what drives our emotions but not necessarily others.
      • Liz
        Thanks. I just hope I didn't offend anyone with my rather blunt post. Usually I keep some of those opinions to myself as they tend to rub some the wrong way and it isn't usually worth the fall out.
  • Thank you for this very thoughtful and perceptive post. I'm a 20-year breast cancer "survivor" and am involved in a variety of cancer related volunteer activities. I think there are probably many reasons why survivors volunteer. One that's especially important to me is the realization that we have a certain "expertise" - obviously not sought but one that we have nonetheless - that can make a difference. For example, for a newly diagnosed breast cancer patient who calls a hotline for support, there's nothing like speaking with someone who has been "in their shoes". Another example is being able to provide the patient's perspective in meetings where cancer research proposals are being considered for funding in government programs. For me, the realization that I have something specific and somewhat unique to offer, even years after my diagnosis, means I can't not do what I do. And I think, too, the rewards are sometimes immediate whenever you realize that your contribution has made a difference in some small way.

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