Josh Fernandez: Debra Jarvis and Finding Meaning
Rev. Debra Jarvis, Mdiv, says cancer is about finding meaning, trusting your gut, learning to take risks, developing your curiosity and staying awake. To highlight these points, Jarvis utilized a handful of stories throughout her closing speech at the Living Beyond Breast Cancer’s Annual Fall Conference on Saturday, Sept. 29. Here on the Blog, LBBC's Web Content Coordinator, Josh Fernandez, shares his experience hearing Debra speak at his first ever national LBBC conference.
Her first anecdote directly related to the title of her 2007 book, It’s Not About the Hair. After learning she had breast cancer in 2005, Debra and her husband called family and friends to give them the news. The oft response Debra heard was, “Oh my God, are you going to lose your hair?”
“After about the third phone call, I slammed down the phone and said to my husband, ‘I’m telling you, I’m going to write a book and I’m going to call it ‘It’s Not About the Hair,’’” Debra told the conference audience.
She later learned from friends that what they really wanted to ask was, “Are you going to lose your life?” For her friends and family, the hair question was a way to measure how bad the cancer was.
After explaining the book’s origins, Debra transitioned into her response to the question presented in the book: “If cancer is not about the hair, then what is it about?”
“I think any kind of really challenging experience is about finding meaning,” Debra said in her speech. “The real challenge is that nobody can tell us what our experience means.”
She said it’s up to the individual to discover this meaning, and that meanings are dynamic and change over time. Debra then discussed the importance of developing an attitude of curiosity rather than dread.
“We’ve all seen people facing challenges, and it takes a lot of energy…what if instead of contracting, we expand, move forward with our hands out and our palms up and have an attitude of curiosity, saying, “I wonder what this experience is going to be like?” she said. “When we approach any challenge with curiosity instead of dread, it suddenly becomes interesting and way less intimidating.”
Debra said this attitude helps individuals stay awake to possibilities and experience growth and change. She said being awake means “knowing that being alive is a gift, and that this gift is finite; it will end…To me, being awake is our task to love and leave the planet a better place in any way we can.”
Debra also said that it’s crucial not to “go back to sleep”. She cited an anecdote about a woman she met five years ago while working at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance where she also received treatment. The woman was undergoing chemotherapy for cancer, and told Debra that she wanted to see her grandchild grow, start a garden, stop being judgmental and appreciate life in general.
Two years after the initial conversation, Debra ran into the woman in front of a chase case of a supermarket. Debra asked the woman about her grandchild, her garden and life in general, and the woman’s responses – among them being that her grandchild was a “nightmare” and that she didn’t garden because she didn’t want to ruin her manicure – indicated she hadn’t followed through on the promises she made to herself when she was receiving treatment. She was the same person she was before her cancer diagnosis; she had “gone back to sleep.”
When she finished telling the story, Debra said staying awake was important for continued growth.
“We don’t need to have breast cancer for spiritual and personal growth…but if we are touched by cancer, let’s use it. Let’s find meaning, let’s take risks and trust our gut, and be curious and open and not go back to sleep,” she concluded.
Check out Living Beyond Breast Cancer’s website to read Debra’s Ask-the-Expert questions. Also, stop over at Amazon.com to purchase her book, It’s Not About the Hair: And Other Certainties of Life & Cancer.