Patient, Survivor or Neither: People With Cancer Explain Their Relationship With Certain Terms

CURE® surveyed its audience to see which terms they prefer to use when describing their cancer experiences. Some people who have experienced cancer explain their mixed feelings with the commonly used terms “patient” and “survivor.”

People with cancer sometimes speak about having mixed feelings regarding specific terms used to label them. Some have even spoken about how the label “cancer patient” made them feel like their identity was being taken away from them.

In a recent #CureConnect question, we asked the CURE® audience on social media, “Which term do you prefer? Survivor? Thriver? Patient? Something else? Why do you like certain terms and dislike others?”

We had a diverse array of responses, showing the spectrum of feelings that people who have experienced cancer have about the language used to describe them. In a series of posts, we hope to highlight why people with cancer have such strong feelings about being labeled in certain ways.

In today’s post, we share the thoughts people with cancer have about the commonly used terms “patient” and “survivor.”

Some See Themselves as Survivors

“My cancer treatment is over and I'm currently (no evidence of disease). However, cancer has left me with physical and mental impacts. Therefore, I call myself a cancer survivor living with (a) fear of recurrence. If I need secondary treatment, I will call myself a patient living with cancer.” -Gogs Gagnon, a prostate cancer survivor and CURE® contributor.

“‘Survivor’” works for me, but ‘patient’ is best when speaking of a cancer procedure.” - Ron Cooper, a prostate cancer survivor and CURE® contributor.

“Survivor. I don’t like any term that implies fighting (‘warrior,’ ‘fighter’), as many people don’t ‘win.’ - Carol R., a woman who had triple-positive breast cancer and is currently no evidence of disease.

“I like cancer survivor and dislike (the terms) warrior (and) fighter. In a hospital setting, I prefer giving my name to check in rather than my medical record number (MRN). Asking only for my MRN makes me feel unseen and like I don’t matter enough for them to call me by name.” - Sue, a woman with ovarian cancer.

Some Prefer to Be Called Patients

“I prefer a patient living with cancer. For me, a survivor is someone who finished treatment and is evidence free of disease and is done. That will never be me. I see the phrase ‘lost his/her battle’ with cancer in every obituary where a person has died of cancer. I don’t see that with other diseases. It’s not ‘just’ semantics. Words define us.” - Kelly Irvin, a woman living with stage 4 ovarian cancer and CURE® contributor.

“I use ‘patient’ because it accurately describes my concerns and activities, and having cancer requires boatloads of patience. I'm not (a) ‘survivor’ or thriver because those imply the war is over. I'm not a warrior because I don't have much agency in the fight.” - Kay. J. a patient with astrocytoma.

“I'll be in treatment for the rest of my life, so patient is fine. Fighting in my own way to make the best of the time I have left, but not a fan of the battle language.” - Gina, a woman with adenocarcinoma.

“I’m evidence free of disease, but given my stats, I struggle to label myself as a survivor or thriver. I say I’m a cancer patient who is doing really well right now. Wish I had a more succinct way of saying that. I am definitely not a fan of battle language for myself.” - Julie J., a woman with sarcoma.

“I prefer to just be called a patient. I have been living with (cancer) and I’m losing the battle, so I definitely am not a thriver or a survivor. I have been told that I deal with this journey with dignity and grace. I’m happy with that.” - Michele M., a woman with metastatic breast cancer.

Trying Different Terms

“I have to say a ‘fighter & fellow patient advocate!’ Through the fight (with cancer), I have learned so much about dealing with the symptoms but even more about how I can support others.” - Kerry Fraser, a survivor of a myeloproliferative neoplasm and retired NHL referee. Learn more about his experiences with cancer by watching a recent interview CURE® conducted with Fraser.

“I’m a cancer rebel. I despise the word warrior or any war rhetoric.” - Sara A., a person with multiple myeloma.

“Carcinomie brings a much-needed smile. Survivor is OK if it fits. The rest seem negative to me.” - Pingo, a person with bladder cancer.

“I'm liking carcinomie. Warrior (is) too violent. Patient (is) bland. And I am not a survivor (nor will I be).” - a person with a diffuse low-grade glioma.

“(I) called myself (a) haver of cancer during treatment. Survivor seems uncomfortable to me now that I’m evidence free of disease.” - Tony

“Living with cancer. Because that’s what I’m doing. Thriving? No. Survivor? Yes, from the day of diagnosis to well, the day I’m no longer a survivor. Patient? Only to medical professionals.” - Agnes

“(I prefer the term) ‘lifer,’ as my cancer is incurable and I am definitely not thriving and barely surviving financially. Although some people may not like battle terminology, I personally feel like the cancer journey — both financially and physically — is like moving through a war zone.” - Carolyn L., a woman living with metastatic breast cancer.

“Alive. Call me alive, and then the rest doesn’t really matter to me.” - Phuong G., a woman with stage 4 rectal cancer.

Want to hear more thoughts from people who have been impacted by cancer? Check out our blog page, which is updated daily with insights from patients with cancer, survivors and their caregivers.

For more news on cancer updates, research and education, don’t forget to subscribe to CURE®’s newsletters here.