Not a Cancer "Survivor"
How do you feel about the term "cancer survivor"? How do you understand the meaning? The National Coalition of Cancer Survivors defines it as anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer, starting with the first minute of that knowledge. There is a woman in my group for advanced cancer who calls herself a "12 year breast cancer survivor." I know many other women, safely past adjuvant treatment and well, who are comfortable with the use of the word. We changed the name of our annual event from "National Cancer Survivors Day' to "Celebration of Life" after a few people asked me something like: "Is this day for me? I know that I won't survive this cancer." Personally, I hate it although I have been unable (and have been pondering this one since 1993) to come up with a better term. Anything else becomes a multiple word descriptive: "I was treated for breast cancer" or "My cancer was diagnosed in...." or "It has been X years since I finished treatment for breast cancer."
Nothing is wrong with any of those sentences, but they don't roll off the tongue the way one word does. My complaint about the "survivor" word is actually several complaints:
- It is a noun used for all kinds of situations: polio survivor, rape survivor, terrible car accident survivor.
- I have no idea if I, in the long term, will survive breast cancer. It may come back and get me one day.
- Related to #2, I am very superstitious about using the word, worry that the gods would hear me and shake their collective fists.
I was glad to see this essay from the New York Times and to be reminded that others share my feelings. Note: no one has yet offered a good substitute. Got any ideas?
Not a Cancer Survivor
By SUSAN GUBAR
I am not a cancer survivor, and neither are the women in my cancer support group.
Mary feels that cancer was a "blip" in her past that no longer defines her. Diane is a survivor, but not of cancer; she is "a survivor of treatments of cancer."
Patricia and Judy are not survivors, because they are undergoing their first treatments and have no idea how effective they will be. Not a survivor either, Sarah braces herself for the time - not if, but when - the cancer will return. And there is Allison, who, like me, feels put off by the word "survivor"; somehow the term sounds too heroic to claim for ourselves.
In newspaper articles, on TV shows and Web sites, and at social gatherings, many people with cancer define themselves as cancer survivors. The term is meant to be optimistic, suggesting that such people have beaten cancer, defeated the disease. Through a valiant struggle to endure, they have managed to get through the trauma of cancer and emerge on the other side, perhaps sadder but wiser and possibly even better equipped for existence, for they are now attuned to the precious, precarious nature of human life.