Neurobiologist and activist Martin Inderbitzin, PhD, began his talk with a question: "Did you ever face a life situation that was totally overwhelming?" Most of his audience likely answered yes, since he was speaking to cancer survivors and their families at a Stanford event called Celebrating Cancer Survivors.
The evening focused on life after cancer and highlighted Stanford's Cancer Survivorship Program, which helps survivors and their families transition to life after treatment by providing multidisciplinary services and health care. Lidia Schapira, MD, a medical oncologist and director of the program, said they aim to "help people back into health."
But to me, the heart of the event was the personal stories openly shared by the attendees while standing in line for the food buffet or waiting for the speeches to begin. As a Hodgkin's lymphoma survivor who was treated at Stanford 25 years ago, I swapped "cancer stories" with my comrades.
Inderbitzin understands firsthand the importance of sharing such cancer survival stories. In 2012, he was diagnosed at the age of 32 with pancreatic cancer. From an online search, he quickly learned that about 95 percent of people with his type of cancer die within a few years. However, his doctor gave him hope by mentioning a similar patient, who was successfully treated some years earlier and is now happily skiing in the mountains.
"This picture of someone skiing in the mountains became my mantra," Inderbitzin explained. "I had all these bad statistics against me, but then I also had this one story. And I thought, maybe I can also be one story, because this story was somehow the personification of a possibility. It inspired me to rethink how I saw my own situation."
Later, Inderbitzin publicly shared his own cancer journey, which touched many people who reached out to him. This inspired him to found MySurvivalStory.org -- an initiative that documents inspiring cancer survival stories to help other cancer patients better cope with their illness. He and his wife quit their jobs, raised some funds and began traveling around the globe to find and record short videos of cancer survivors from different cultures.
"We share the stories in formats that people can consume when they have 'chemo brain' -- like podcasts you can listen to and short videos you can process even when you're tired," he said. He added, "These stories are powerful because they provide us with something or someone to aspire to -- someone who is a bit ahead of us, so we think 'I can do that.'"
Inderbitzin isn't the only one to recognize the empowering impact of telling your cancer story. For example, the Stanford Center for Integrative Medicine compiles some patient stories on their Surviving Cancer website. And all of these stories have the potential to help both the teller and listener.
However, Inderbitzin offers the following advice when sharing your cancer story:
Change the story you tell and you will be able to change the life you live. So that's a very powerful concept. And I would like to challenge you and also encourage you that every day when you wake up and get out of bed and things are not looking good, remind yourself that it's actually you who chooses which story to tell. And choosing a better story doesn't mean that you're ignoring reality. No, it just means that you're giving yourself a chance.
Photo of Martin Inderbitzin by Michael Goldstein