Editors note:   This article appeared in the inaugural print edition of Unconditionally Her which debuted at SURVIVORville 2017.    It felt like an appropriate time to post this article on the author’s birthday, which is always a time of reflection of family and friends, including those who are no longer with us.

I cannot express how honored I am to have been a part of Women Survivors Alliance since the very beginning. I have experienced emotions I didn’t even know I had after meeting some of the brave women I have encountered through the years with Women Survivors Alliance.   Through it all have felt so very blessed to be a part of an organization that was formed for and by cancer survivors. I am often asked if I am a cancer survivor.  As of today, I have never had to endure a cancer diagnosis personally, as so many have. And I am eternally grateful for that.  None of us know what tomorrow might bring, but as of today, I am not a cancer survivor.

What I have been is a cancer co-survivor.   Too many times. But I want to talk about “Number One.”   It’s been years now, but I think about him an awful lot.   My grandfather, with whom I was very close, passed away from lung cancer in 2000.   My grandfather was one of those that was “hands-on.” Our relationship was not one of those where we saw each other just on holidays.   I spent a lot of time with him as a child, as a teenager, and even as an adult.   He was one of those people who went about his life quietly, but who did great things.   Things that to the world might not be considered “great,” but to me they were.

My grandfather introduced me to “church life” and he took me and my sister to church with him and my grandmother every single weekend we spent with them which was almost every weekend up until we were teenagers.   I learned to know what a church family was because of him, and it became a huge part of who I am today. He drove the church bus and would let me sit in the front row and welcome the riders when they got on.    He let me get away with things that my grandmother wouldn’t, like eating left-over pineapple upside down cake for breakfast or going without shoes when we were in the park, which now I recognize as that great truth of “life is short, eat dessert first.” He made sure I learned that lesson at a young age!   He introduced me to the great outdoors and the amazing parks that we have in the state of Tennessee.  He taught me that you are never too old to make a difference and be productive. He worked right up until he couldn’t work any longer with his illness, having retired from one job and well into a second career in our family business.

One of the greatest things my grandfather did was to give a young girl a sense of pride and importance.  He called me “Number One” because I was the first grandchild.   I always felt “Number One” with him.  I can count the times on one hand he called me by my given name.  I was always “Number One.”     It’s HARD growing up for any of us as we get to be teenagers, but every now and then I would remember his words “Number One” when the “going got tough.” And it DID get tough going through that awkward stage and getting teased, dealing with an emotionally abusive relationship in my teen years, and other moments that were just plain tough.   I remembered his words when I doubted myself going through college.  And I remembered those words at plenty of other pivotal points in my life.

As a trained public health professional, I have worked on a variety of cancer grants and projects since 2003, but at the time of my grandfather’s death, I had never experienced cancer on a personal level.  The emotions I felt going through this with him was indescribable.  I had never experienced anything like what cancer threw at him – and at all of us who were close to him.   When I had the opportunity through my professional public health work in 2003 to get involved in a cancer-related grant, I didn’t have to question whether to do it. I knew I wanted to be part of making a difference. And while I was his “Number One,” he was also mine.  The first person I knew to ever have cancer.  And my first experience as a co-survivor.

Unfortunately, over the years, the numbers have climbed to where I can no longer say my grandfather is the only person close to me to have dealt with cancer.  I can no longer count on either hand the family, friends, and others I care about who have endured cancer.  Some are still with us as survivors, others are not.  I am grateful to have been involved with Women Survivors Alliance over the years.   It gives me an opportunity to give back, and by serving as editor for WSA’s NOU magazine, an opportunity to educate, empower and inspire survivors and co-survivors every day.  And believe it or not, I usually get more back than I give. From those who tell me their stories and give me inspiration and a new perspective on life as well as from those who share that something in the magazine that has helped them in some way or has given them hope, inspiration, or just a needed laugh for the day. I am supposed to be the one giving, but I always wind up receiving from our awesome and beautiful survivor and co-survivor readers. What a gift!

In my house hangs a small wooden bird house, made by the hands of my grandfather.  On it is a plastic “Number One” placed there by him as a finishing touch on his “masterpiece” before he presented it to me probably five years or so before he died, well before any of us knew he would get cancer.   It stays inside where it will never be destroyed by the elements, and where I see that “Number One” every day.   I will always remember the first time I really “got” cancer – my “Number One” – and what it can do not just to the diagnosed, but to those loved ones who are right there beside a loved one.  It is part of the reason I do what I do today with my cancer-focused work.  And of course it brings back all of the happy memories I had with him as well, and remembering to somebody in this world, I was always “Number One.”