Why I'm Sensitive About Labels Like ‘Survivor’ and ‘Cancer-Free’


Motivating affirmations are one thing, but to me, labels like “survivor” and “cancer-free” are a touchy subject.

A few months ago, I was browsing through the book “Atomic Habits”by James Clear, who discussed the importance of thinking of yourself as someone who already does the habit you’re looking to implement. For example, trying to quit smoking? Stop telling yourself that you’re looking to quit or cut back, and instead think “I’m not a smoker.”

This caught my attention because I actually used this technique during my darkest days of fighting cancer. A handful of years back, after I had been diagnosed with a rare and aggressive bone cancer that ravaged my body, doctors repeatedly told me they had never seen anyone survive my situation — and not just my oncologist said that. I heard that from at least five different highly revered specialists.

Undeterred, and seeing no other choice, I began using self-talk as a weapon. I was constantly telling myself, “I’m grateful to have healed and be in remission; I’m grateful to have survived and be thriving, in spite of what doctors and statistics say,” while visualizing myself healthy and fit. Acting as if I was, with the spirit of gratitude behind it.

Somewhere along the way, thanks to this method, a great deal of luck, plus countless other cancer-fighting efforts, I was able to defy the odds and reach a point of receiving consistent clear scans.

But as much as I myself might go with labels like “survivor” or “cancer-free” in my self-talk, I actually find it triggering when referred to by others this way.

First off, my doctors haven’t even declared me “cancer free” or in remission. They simply explain that no disease is evident. Then there's my own history with cancer: after a year of intensive chemo and surgeries, I had clear scans. Society chalked me up as cancer-free and I went back to work. Only three months later, scans revealed nodules had formed in both lungs. This led to two more surgeries, where afterwards scans once again came back clear. I went back to work and, like clockwork, and three months later scans showed the nodules were back.

This kind of thing kept happening — first the right femur, multiple return trips to both lungs, then the left hip — for about five recurrences until I took a medical leave of absence and committed entirely to my health while exploring holistic healing techniques and alternative regimens.

If you want to say I’m thriving? Cool. That’s perfect. But the term “survivor” implies something that only time will tell. My mother-in-law overcame a breast cancer diagnosis and ten years later it returned (where thankfully she overcame it again). A good friend of mine who overcame the first few waves of brain cancer just had a serious recurrence years later. It’s been gut wrenching and traumatic just hearing about what he’s going through.

This kind of thing happens all the time, including to many friends I’ve lost along the way, which is why I work so hard every day to give my body and immune system the best chance possible at keeping any microscopic cancer cells at bay.

I imagine there are plenty of people who motivate themselves by outwardly expressing similar affirmations to what I use internally, and I appreciate that cancer fighters should do whatever they have to do to get by. But for me, the labels are just a touchy subject. Motivating affirmations are one thing, but when it comes to how society refers to my health status, using phrases like “no disease evident” or “cancer thriver” work just fine.

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