Dealing with the Word "Survivor"

The word "cancer" is so heavy, freighted with meaning. So is the word "survivor". Both words carry so much weight that some who receive a cancer diagnosis don’t feel right using these words. But is it right to feel that way? advocate Sarah Watts, who received a bladder cancer diagnosis in 2007, dives into this topic in her story shared with the community. In her piece, she says, “Cancer is as varied an experience as the person having it.”

Finding the right language for you

Because her time from diagnosis to being cancer-free lasted just four weeks, she says that she shies away from the term, telling people that it wasn’t “cancer-cancer.” But ultimately, she found language that she felt did fit with her experience. She feels right in describing herself as a “survivor of the experience of cancer.”

Her piece struck a chord with many readers, raising a good question. What makes someone a cancer survivor?

We posed this question on the Facebook page. Nearly 100 of you reacted to the piece, and more than 20 of you shared your thoughts. Here’s what you had to say.

“I didn’t suffer through chemo or radiation”

Suffering — this seems to be the piece that so many of you believe defines cancer. Suffering, and chemo. But there are no rules when it comes to diagnoses. Just because chemo wasn’t part of your treatment plan doesn’t mean that you are not a survivor. It doesn’t mean that your experience isn’t or wasn’t traumatic. Or that you don’t deserve to call yourself a survivor or talk about your experience. Your experience is entirely your own, and you’re allowed to talk about it, or not talk about it, in whatever way you like. In some ways, sharing your story may help other people realize that cancer looks different for everyone, and that it doesn’t necessarily have to involve chemo.

Six years cancer-free

“I have felt the same way. I was very fortunate that my cancer was removed completely through surgery. But since I didn’t suffer through chemo or radiation, I never considered myself a survivor. Six years cancer free and no more follow-ups with the oncologist! Thank you!”

I'm here. It feels minor.

“I often find myself shying away from this, too. It’s been 10 years. I had endometrial cancer — one tumor, surgery, and very minimal chemo. The worst parts were darn near invisible — lots of infections, and supposedly I can’t have another child. Pretty minor compared to some cancer treatments that I have seen. Sometimes I have to remind myself ‘that happened’ and sometimes I deal with the ‘what if it returns’ fear, but mostly, yeah, it was cancer, but not CANCER-cancer. I’m here. It feels minor.”

“I have survivor guilt.”

Cancer is hard, no matter what the treatment plan, no matter the outcome. Yes, for some, the results are hard, if not impossible, to deal with. But that doesn’t minimize the cancer of others. Everyone’s pain matters. Everyone’s story matters. Our own pain doesn’t need to be minimized because someone else’s pain is greater. And if anyone attempts to minimize your pain because someone else’s cancer is worse, please don’t listen. And please don’t do this to yourself — please don’t minimize the pain. Pain is healed in community. It’s healed by acknowledging it and talking about it. Because even if your actual diagnosis-to-healing time was short, like Watts’ experience, doesn’t mean that you’re not free from fear and worry. Cancer affects everyone differently, and hopefully more can be gained from seeing the similarities in experiences, rather than comparing whose pain was bigger or harder to deal with. It’s cancer. It’s never easy.

What other people have gone through

“I can totally relate to this post. My cancer experience involved the trauma of hearing my name next to the 'c' word, and a lot of poking, prodding, surgery and 15 rounds of radiation. The medication I’m on sucks, but it sure is better than going through chemo. When I look at what other people have gone through, I have survivor guilt. But I’ve learned that this is my journey and it is not my role to or to my benefit to compare my journey to that of other people.”

“You had cancer. You are a survivor.”

There is truth and bravery in this response, written by a mother of a cancer survivor. Anyone who receives the diagnosis and continues onward, in any capacity, is a survivor, if they choose to use that word. If you find strength and hope in the word, then use it. Let it empower you, and connect you with a community that offers love, hope and support.

“Definitely a survivor! Even if the time to treat is short—it’s still traumatic!”

“If you’ve had cancer, and you are still alive, you are a cancer survivor.”

We want to say thank you to everyone who shared their hope and experience around the word survivor. It is our hope that these shared experiences bring healing to the community.

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