Is There a Scale for Cancer Survivorship?


My cancer was caught early, and I never had to have chemotherapy — leading me experience survivor’s guilt and ask, “can I even call myself a survivor?”

I was really lucky. Four words that I use to describe my breast cancer experience. They are meaningful and dismissive, significant and evasive. This is intentional on my part, when you ask me about my breast cancer, the double-mastectomy, the surgeries, my implants, my overall feelings about being a “breast cancer survivor.”

I do this because I want you to know two things: I was really lucky. And, I don’t want to talk about it.

I was lucky because I caught my cancer early during a routine mammogram, and I was luckier still that I happened to work for a radiology company, so getting my results, my biopsy, an appointment with the oncologist, even my surgery, all happened quickly.

At the time, I handled it like it was an item on my to-do list: Breast surgeon appointment? Check. Oncologist? Check. Surgery? Check. I didn’t give myself time or space to absorb any of it on an emotional level. I was just taking care of business.

When my oncologist told me that if I had waited even four months to find this cancer, I would have been at stage 4, my reaction was very matter of fact. Despite being 41 years-old with three young children, I nodded my head as if we were talking about the weather. “Interesting,” I said.

I was also lucky because finding my cancer early and having the radical mastectomy meant that I wasn’t going to need chemo or radiation or even tamoxifen. I was going to walk away from my cancer with two silicone breasts and an obligation to have an MRI every other year. Check and check.

I was really lucky. This is where I’m being evasive. While I can appreciate all of the fortunate circumstances surrounding my diagnosis and treatment, being “lucky” has left me with a certain amount of guilt. And even to some degree, denial.

I remember when I first started going through the process, and I was at the surgery center, another breast cancer patient was offering me all kinds of helpful advice: Always bring a buddy to appointments; have a notebook; drink lots of water; and so on. She even took me into a dressing room to show me her newly reconstructed breasts.

Then she asked me, “How long will you need to do chemo?” I felt my cheeks burn, my voice caught in my throat, as if I had done something wrong.

“I won’t need any,” I told her, trying to keep my voice light, but I felt like something between us shifted. We weren’t on the same team anymore. I felt like I was a fraud.

Are there degrees of “survivorship?” If I had put off my mammogram, waited a few months and found myself at stage 4 with a very aggressive cancer, would I be more validated as a “survivor?” Can I even call myself a “survivor?” I didn’t go through grueling rounds of chemo, lose my hair, have my breasts fried through daily radiation treatments and then somehow crawl my way out the other end — does this make my experience less meaningful somehow?

This is where I have found myself, from that day in the surgery center, to this one, 11 years post cancer. I am not applauding myself for having strength to get through breast cancer, or contemplating my life, my mortality. Instead, I find myself denying the existence of a very real event in my life because I have somehow decided that it was not significant enough on the scale of “survivorship.”

Cancer does something to all of us psychologically. One friend of mine lives in fear of her cancer coming back, and another woman I know can’t resolve the resentment she feels toward her own body.

For me, it’s this ignominious sort of survivor’s guilt. Or more aptly, “survivorship guilt.” Our doctors warn us how we might feel physically once we get through cancer, but the river of emotions we are left to dive into is so deep and nebulous, we can only tread through it as best as we can.I may never assuage these feelings, regardless of how much therapy I get, or groups I attend, or if I choose to write about it here.

The one thing I can tell you with certainty about my breast cancer experience is that I was really lucky.

This post was written and submitted by Stephanie Landon. The article reflects the views of Stephanie Landon and not of CURE®. This is also not supposed to be intended as medical advice.

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