I’m often late to the party when it comes to following mainstream news and culture. For example, there was recently a big national basketball competition, and it wasn’t til toward the end that I realized why people around here were so excited: the Oakland team won. That’s great. Yay, Oakland.
I was also not interested in early June when I read on some of the blogs I follow about something called National Cancer Survivors’ Day. I gather there were various events held around the country. I don’t know what the point was.
I know the word “survivor” ruffles a lot of feathers among people who have – what shall we call it – had cancer and now don’t have it or have “no evidence” of it.
Some of the bloggers I read, reacting to the concocted survivor’s day, wrote about how much they dislike the word “survivor.”
I appreciate their arguments, and I don’t agree with them.
I think words matter because words reflect and promote an ideology. Material interests, along with ideology, have to do with what and how people know what they know, and that figures into public health policy, among other things.
The best argument I read against using the term “survivor” — to describe those of us who had cancer and now don’t — is that, obviously, many people do not survive cancer. They suffer and die, and it’s not pink.
In the breast cancer world, the focus on survivors of stages 1, 2 and 3 cancers has led to the neglect of the women — and men—living with and dying from stage 4 metastatic cancer. They’re not going to survive. They’re never going to end treatment. Their cancer has already spread to other organs and it’s only a matter of time before they die from this disease.
The argument of those who don’t like the word “survivor” is that to call oneself a “survivor” is to negate or trivialize the experience of those among us who are not going to make it.
Again, I can appreciate this argument, and I don’t share it.
Another argument I heard, from a client who went through breast cancer treatment 14 years ago and continues to thrive, is that the term “survivor” suggests that we did or were something special to make it. She, like the rest of us, did what she had to do, showed up for treatment, endured the side effects, and now makes her way through life content that she’s beaten the beast for the time being, while knowing that it may or may not come back in the future. There’s nothing “heroic” about this. It wasn’t a “gift.” It did not turn her into a different person. It did not enhance her life. She doesn’t want to call herself a survivor because she connects this word with other themes in the pink ribbon mindset.
Personally, I do refer to myself as a cancer survivor. I don’t view it as an identity. It’s not something to be proud of. It’s a rhetorical term useful for discussing what happened.
Here I’ll explain why I like and use the term survivor.
I’m a survivor of many things. I have survived through a couple of big earthquakes and one major car accident. This just means that I went through something difficult and lived to tell the tale. It does not mean I did anything special to be among those lucky to make it. It does not mean I won’t suffer through similar things in the future.
Some of the things I have survived won’t happen again in this lifetime. I survived extreme child abuse and that can’t happen again. I call myself a survivor, when pertinent, because I made it through and because I continue to deal with the after-effects, similar to how I deal with the after-effects of cancer.
I could say I “survived” law school which would be silly. That would trivialize an unpleasant experience that I chose to go through in order to get to a desired end.
I don’t use the word “survivor” for trivial matters.
I say I’m a survivor because it means I went through something bad and dangerous.
Through some effort of my own – such as following doctors’ recommendations and just showing up – and by some mysterious forces of luck, chance and grace, I got through that experience.
It’s not a vaccination against future bad luck.
It’s not a badge of honor. It says nothing about my present or future attributes.
I hope that my happiness at having gotten through an f-ing nightmare is not used to distract attention from those who are in the nightmare. I believe that every one of my friends and clients who have died of cancer would want me to call myself a “survivor.”
I don’t think my calling myself a “survivor” makes me an accomplice in pink ribbon ideology because I don’t link survivorship with any notion of cancer being a neat “gift” or some kind of noble rite of passage or a display of my warriorship, or any of the other b.s. that circulates around this topic.
I find it simply useful to say “I’m a cancer survivor,” when I’m meeting with a new health care professional or when I occasionally have to explain to a client why I can’t have her in my tiny office if she comes in drenched in toxic perfumes.
I also find it useful to remember that I am a cancer patient, ongoingly. I take a prescription drug and use all sorts of integrative medicine to reduce my risk of recurrence. I am in and out of doctors’ offices several times a month.
Being a patient is not an identity. It’s one role in a multi-faceted self, along with being a survivor of some difficult things.
Calling myself a cancer survivor right now does not give me any illusions about being an ultimate survivor. What it does do is say: I went through a difficult thing. I don’t accept or envision or give energy to defeat right now. I rejoice that I made it, and I hope that others will, too.