Claim your experience: Beyond the survivor identity

In her 2014 TEDMED talk, Debra Jarvis, a writer and former hospital chaplain, offered a witty and daring look at the way that survivors of disease and trauma can achieve new levels of emotional and psychological healing. We caught up with Debra in between her sabbatical adventures in Europe.

Debra Jarvis, Cancer Survivor
Debra Jarvis at TEDMED 2014, Photo: Sandy Huffaker

What motivated you to speak at TEDMED?

As a chaplain I always walk the line between science and spirituality. I knew that I had a unique perspective as a hospital chaplain, as a family member of someone with cancer and as a patient myself. So I had seen the issue of survivorship from all these different perspectives and knew TEDMED was a perfect venue to give a voice to the many patients who talked to me over the years. I spoke for a lot of people in that talk.

Why does this talk matter now? What impact do you hope the talk will have?

This talk matters now because the pressure to be a “participating” survivor is high and although I think funding cancer research is important, taking on this identity can keep people stuck.  Although the context of my talk is specific — taking on “cancer survivor” as an identity — I hope  that listeners/viewers will realize that the problem is universal. Taking on any kind of “victim/survivor” identity is deadly. It can be cancer, it can be a car crash, it can be being dumped by a lover! My suggestion remains the same: Process your feelings, mine the experience for all it’s worth and then move on. Keep growing. Keep becoming.

What kind of meaningful or surprising connections did you make at TEDMED?

The best thing for me about TEDMED was being around so many people who are using their power for good. As Spiderman’s uncle said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” And so many of the speakers there were using their brains, education and energy to find solutions to some of the world’s thorniest problems. They are taking on great responsibilities, and that is inspiring.

What is the legacy you want to leave?

“Claim your experience. Don’t let it claim you.”

Anything else you wish you could have included in your talk?   

I wish I had time to talk about knowing the difference between being truly wounded and simply not getting what you want. The latter is your ego stamping its little foot and whining. I would have also loved to talk about what it would be like to not carry a wound, but instead carry a scar. A scar is so much stronger than the original tissue! And finally, I wish I could have included why I think we get so excited about surviving: It’s because we are so afraid of death. It’s like, “You’re a survivor!” but the unspoken thought is, “For now.” Because ultimately, no one survives. Americans in particular are loathe to face this. I would have loved to talk about teaching our children not to fear death and to give some great examples I’ve seen of how to do that.