Guest Blog: Survival mode: is it really over?

By Ashley Camara

A few days ago I was scrolling through social media and I came across this quote: “You mastered survival mode, now it’s time to live.” and so I paused and read it again and again and then I asked myself, “What do I define as survival mode? Did I master survival mode or am I still surviving? Am I really living? Can you ever master survival mode?”  So then I went on to think about everything that has been going on in my life so far, both past and present and realized that I find myself going back and forth into survival mode, maybe all of us do (at least for now).

Let’s start by defining it; to me, survival mode would be getting through a tough situation like a traumatic event (i.e. Cancer) or even getting through a rough day at work. When your brain becomes alert and defensive to whatever is happening around you it creates the tools to overcome the situation and learn from it.

I feel like being a Cancer Survivor or a current patient at such a young age makes you really put things into perspective. I was diagnosed when I was 22 years old with a rare form of blood cancer called Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS), which usually is a diagnosis for older adults (50+).  Additionally, I had an autoimmune disease called Vasculitis, which made my legs swell. But before my diagnosis, my brother at 23 years old was also diagnosed with the same disease (MDS) and a year and two months later he passed away fighting for his life.  Only two years after his passing I now found myself having to fight the same fight my brother did.  The same fight that ultimately took his life.  Survival mode engaged.  Not only was I fighting for me, but for my parents as well.  With my brother, my survival mode was to be there, helping in every possible way; assisting my parents with hospital bills, continuing my education as I was in college at the time, making fundraisers to be able to pay for his treatment.  You name it, I did it.  I did everything I could for him. Then I was diagnosed and my survival mode kicked in again.  I was the only child left and didn’t want my parents to lose another child (negative side) but I knew what was going to happen or what could happen. I had a Stem Cell Transplant, battled through it all and made it so far… After deaths in my family, a breakup, new jobs, new romance, I keep thinking that I am constantly finding myself in survival mode. Always ready and prepared, but I guess that’s not a bad thing.

I think you can do both. You can be in survival mode and live at the same time. I am not going to lie, there have been times that I just want to give up and not do life anymore even though I’ve been 2 years post-transplant. You might feel this way sometimes but, it happens, it will happen and it’s OK. It’s ok to feel overwhelmed when people think that since you’re doing so well and looking so good that you’re done. It’s not like that, it’s not that easy. Being a survivor is also a struggle, even if it appears as if everything is normal. There have been so many times that I have gone into a panic when I start showing signs of a skin issue or if I get a cold or some type of pain and I don’t feel better after a few days or don’t know the source of it. Those of you that are reading this can probably relate in some way. We are trying to survive every single day…at work, at home, with our diagnosis, financially, by being a cancer survivor and in so many other ways, we are constantly in survival mode.

Now, going back to the original quote I mentioned, the second part was “now it’s time to live”. Am I really living? Are you really living? What are we doing if we answer yes to the previous question? That’s another tricky part. How do you do that while constantly going back and forth into survival mode? I guess you just do. And like a quote, I say a lot “Just do it” (like Nike says too, I guess) but yes, just do it… do things for yourself that make you feel alive whether it’s going on a walk, cooking a new recipe, reading a book, listening to music, working out, going out with friends or going shopping to buy another shirt you probably don’t need (I guess I projected myself on the last one). Whatever you decide to do - that is the best way to live.

I guess Cancer does make you think about all these things and forces you, in a way, to be grateful for the blessings you have. Makes you pause for a second and gives you a reality check.

Whether you are a patient, survivor, caregiver, friend, family member or coworker that is reading this, if you are going back and forth like me and are still struggling with different things, it’s ok. It’s ok not to be ok, the only thing that is not ok is to give up. If you ever find yourself in that situation, reach out to people. Somebody will always be there for you (believe this). You are not alone.

I think what we need to take from any situation is our instinct to survive. Yes, we can have different mental states whether feeling low or extremely positive but for the most part we all want to survive. Whatever situation you are in, we are all doing our best to do so. Keep doing your best and don’t forget to live, whatever your circumstances are and even if it’s hard… baby steps, you must start somewhere.


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