Elizabeth Mazur, Ph.D.

De-Stressing Disability

Why It’s Time to Stop Whispering and Take Your Survivor Lap

Yes, even if what you have survived is not cancer.

Posted Jun 23, 2018

This morning I walked with my Curves buddies in support of Relay for Life, the signature fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. Briefly, if you have never been, Relay is a fundraising event in which team members take turns walking around a track or designated path. I will leave alone, for now, the issue of the financial efficiency of the American Cancer Society (if you are interested, one reliable site to check is CharityNavigator.com). 

What impressed me last night was the Survivor Lap, when survivors and people currently affected by cancer walk a lap around the track to be cheered and supported by everyone in attendance.  Similarly, when I was introduced to walkers during the relay, some proudly announced how many years they had survived cancer.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people living with mental illness could show the same pride for survival? For example, the mission of the NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) walk is at least partly to raise awareness of mental illness and to fight its stigma. However, in my five years participating, the walk has consistently occurred on a Sunday morning in a shopping center with very little traffic and few attendees or onlookers besides the walkers themselves. No one cries out as they did today, “I’m 16 years a survivor” or “Diagnosed 2 years ago!”. I was struck, too, by the T-shirt I saw at the Relay that declared, “No one fights alone!,” the statement wrapped in a printed ribbon of the cancer color of one’s choice (evidently, a best-selling and “best value” T-shirt on choosehope.com). Again, how wonderful it would be for persons with mental illness as well as those with other disabilities to feel the same sense of social support. 

There is history to cancer’s rocky transition from shame and silence to social support and (incomplete) visibility. I am not belittling that. Many of us grew up with relatives who whispered about a friend or family member with cancer, a scene well portrayed in the 1985 film “St. Elmo’s Fire.” Even now, as described in a Washington Post article, relatives of celebrities and of decedents who are less well known often “still omit the exact cause of death" from obituaries "when it comes to the c-word” (Shapira, 2016).

Toshikata Mizuno/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Toshikata Mizuno/Wikimedia Commons

One two-year-old organization that encourages the open discussion of mental illness is Inside Our Minds. The goal of this completely volunteer-run project is to "to elevate the voices of people with lived experience of mental illness and madness.” I haven’t yet attended any of their events, which take place in Pittsburgh, but I encourage you to check out the website and see if a similar project is happening in your area (or start one yourself!).

Its time to stop whispering about mental illness—as well as about cancer.


Shapira, I. (2016, January 22).  What Kind of cancer killed them?  Obituaries for David Bowie and others don't say.  The Washington Post.  Retrieved from washingtonpost.com

More Posts