Defining Words of Cancer


I gained perspective about the words used when people talk about cancer.

I have often written about the definitions of words. With cancer, every word matters. I can’t tell you how long I waited for the word “remission” to leave the lips of my sister’s oncologist. I feel that some words have different meanings to those going through cancer, such as brave, strong, courage, hope and happiness. Even words such as “survivor” take on sometimes powerful meanings when one is faced with cancer.

For me, it was quite difficult when those words were used with my name, or when titles were given to let people know who I was when meeting my sister and I for the first time. While I was, of course, her sister, people also used words like caregiver, confidant, advocate and home nurse. The hardest for me by far has been the usage of the word “survivor.”

When the diagnosis was given to my sister, I did not know what to do. I could not comprehend it all, and a part of me wanted to just crawl away and cry silently. I wanted the pain of that moment to end, and for life to go back to the way it was. That moment is etched in my memory forever. In time, I did come to better understand what had happened. And somewhere along the way, I made the choice to stay.

I decided, by will and circumstance, that the journey of cancer would not be one that my sister was going to take alone. Had I been the patient, I would not have wanted to do it alone. Instead, cancer became a “we” event in our lives. We went to chemo treatments, we were hospitalized, we endured a bone marrow transplant. And we are lucky enough to now be on the other side of cancer.

Through this experience, I have met many who were not lucky enough to say the same. I do not believe that living through cancer is what defines a survivor. To be a survivor, one endures. To me, that means anybody who faces the heartbreaking diagnosis of cancer is survivor. Along with the aforementioned above used in association with my name, the word survivor has been the most perplexing.

During a recent conversation with a close friend, he brought up the topic once again. He highlighted that by my own definition, I technically fall into the category of survivor because I, too, endured cancer. I will always argue that I am not a survivor because I never actually had cancer, but I can say that I gained new perspective. The conversation that I had with my friend did make me better understand why the word survivor is often used when speaking of both cancer patients and those closest to them.

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