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Cancer Survivor: What's in a Name?

Barbara Carlos

I have never been comfortable with the word “survivor.” I never really thought about it until I was called one, and that’s when the discomfort set in. To me, a survivor is someone who goes through some horrific ordeal and emerges on the other side sort of in one piece. Yeah, I know, that’s a fairly accurate description of the triple whammy of mastectomy, chemo and radiation but it just doesn’t work for me. Prior to being considered a cancer survivor, I usually associated survivor with Holocaust, so perhaps you can understand the reason for my discomfort.

I think of survivors as having some kind of heroic aspect to their deeds, and I certainly don’t. Actually, in a way, I didn’t really do anything. I just laid there for the mastectomy, anesthetized and blissfully unaware of the reality of the operation and its upcoming, long term, life-changing repercussions. In like manner, for each round of my chemo, I reclined in a very comfy chair for the duration of the injections, reading, dozing or watching TV. Again, for radiation all I had to do was lie there and try not to lose my mind as the machine clicked, whirred, spun, and radiated immediately above me.

Webster’s Dictionary defines survivor as, “One who survives or outlives another person, or any time, event or thing.” That’s a rather broad brush and it could be used to describe a million situations. We all outlast other people, events, things at different stages of our lives, even on a regular basis. This definition of survivor doesn’t seem to fit me.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines survivor as, “A person who continues to live, especially despite being nearly killed or experiencing great danger or difficulty.” Hmm. I never felt that I was close to death or was nearly killed by cancer or the aftermath of treatment side effects. Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that five consecutive days of diarrhea after a round of chemo wasn’t a great difficulty, but it was just something that had to be dealt with. This definition of survivor doesn’t fit me either.

The Cambridge Dictionary says a survivor is “A person who continues to live, especially after a dangerous event. “ Well, life is dangerous. Just this morning, while moving along at good clip, I was cutoff on the freeway twice within a mile or so. In that case, most of us survive our daily commutes but does that make everyone a survivor? Again the definition of survivor doesn’t seem right for me.

The first few times someone called me a cancer survivor I was startled to hear the term applied to me. I didn’t think it was a true depiction of me or my situation. Then I started to correct people who used the term “survivor” because I didn’t think I had earned such a title. After a while, I changed my approach. I didn’t want to come across as argumentative or impolite, so when called a survivor, I would gently mention that I wasn’t a survivor but I was working on it, implying that survivor might be something I could become sometime off in the future. Now I just ignore other people’s use of the word survivor. If it makes them happy to pigeonhole me as a survivor, I let it roll off my back. I just can’t see it though, not for me.

My cancer was a part of my life, and it still is. But if I live to be 100, I am not surviving anything different than what so many others have gone through, are going through, or will go through during my lifetime. Since cancer can recur or metastasize, how can I claim survivor when I don’t know if or when it will do so? And with earlier detection and continued research in treatment, more and more of us who have had cancer now live well beyond what was expected even 10 years ago and then we may develop a completely different kind of cancer in our old age. Would that negate survivor status? 

None of us truly “survive” because none of us will get out of here alive. I don’t think I’ll ever be comfortable with the word or ever refer to myself as a survivor. I just take one day at a time. Some days are better than others but my bad days now are better than my good days were a few years ago.

I just keep on truckin’.
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