Words are powerful. They express and shape reality, which means that I am cautious about word choice. For example, I never used the word “battle” when I was in treatment for cancer.
“The cancer is part of me,” I would observe. “I have to negotiate a relationship that allows me to live with it even as I aspire to outlive it.”
Because I did not feel like a warrior when I sat in the chemo chair or lay still in the radiation room, it was not difficult to choose other words and metaphors to describe my experience. I likened myself to a forest undergoing a controlled burn to spark new growth. What came next was more challenging to put into words.
"When do I get to call myself a survivor?" I asked a nurse one day early in treatment.
"You're alive today," she smiled. "You're a survivor."
I appreciated the attitude of the nurse at the same time I remained wary of her word choice. Being a survivor seemed to be easier said than done.
"Am I OK now?" I asked a doctor toward the end of treatment.
Things looked promising, he assured me, simultaneously reminding me of the statistical chance of recurrence within my expected lifespan, if not the coming weeks.
Trying to balance a label of 'survivor' with the specter of statistics thus proved challenging. I did not want to spook my chances by calling myself a survivor, not even a year after I finished the last infusion. I tiptoed around the word. What if two weeks after I declared myself a survivor I had to eat my words?
"I am surviving cancer," I would proclaim, focusing on the participle 'surviving' rather than the noun 'survivor.'
A noun is conclusive. A present participle signifies a process. I pretended to myself that saying I was surviving cancer meant I was succeeding even if I was not a success. I was singing even if I was not a singer. I was surviving, was I not, even if I was not a survivor? A person who thinks like this can sink into semantic quicksand. Affirming a process was a way to feel actively involved in surviving, but it also obscured the goal of surviving.
"Am I a survivor?" I asked myself as I gazed into a mirror not so long ago, fluffing up my hair after a new haircut that meant that I had given up the ghost of thicker hair I lost that never would grow back.
My new hair cut well, looked OK, and admitting that signaled a turning point in my attitude about survival. I decided shortly after the haircut, which coincided with a six-month checkup, to go ahead and call myself a survivor.
Even before I sat down with my doctor, I realized that I had to stop tiptoeing around fears that cycled from checkup to checkup. Being afraid to call myself a survivor was a little bit like being afraid of the dark when the lights are on. I understand the power of negative thinking. The fears had to go.
“I am a survivor,” I announced, the first chance I got.
There will be more opportunities too. Why wait five years or twenty? Why not relish each day with the affirmation that you are not only surviving but also that you have already survived? We need to remember the words of the nurse who reassured me. If you, too, are alive today, you are a survivor.
If you need to practice the word to befriend it, go ahead. Repeat along with me: "I am a survivor."