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Monday, June 11, 2012

Cancer Survivor - What's in a name?

Recently I've been thinking about the words we use about cancer and cancer patients. They're words of war: battle, fight, survivor. On the one hand, we read that so-and-so is a 10 year survivor. On the other, we read of those who lost their 5 year battle with cancer. We engage in a fight against cancer, and people refer to themselves as pink warriors. As though the next President will land on an aircraft carrier in the middle of a hospital (see the absurdity of the metaphor?) and declare victory.

A friend of mine and I were recently commiserating about the term survivor, in particular. First of all, the word makes it sound like the battle or hardship is over. That we survived - emphasis on the "ed." Neither of us feels as if it's over and done with. I don't believe anyone who has had any experience with cancer ever feels like its truly over.

The whole fight thing really bugs me too. As though the cancer really cared about my personality. If it did, it wouldn't have dared to take up residence in my body to begin with. I think the flip side of the battle cry is the subtle hint of blame if things don't go well. Like somehow, if you're not smiling through the pain, wearing lipstick to your mastectomy, flying to Switzerland to try some experimental drug and meditating six times a day, you're not doing enough to "fight" your cancer. Guess what? Cancer doesn't discriminate. It affects the mentally strong and weak alike. It doesn't care if I take a nap or run a decathlon today. It's a sneaky sucker that will take advantage of anything it can, and when we throw something at it one way, it will morph and hide until it finds another way in. It is many different diseases with one name - and they're all out to get you and me, the vegans and the yoga instructors, the country singers and celebrities, the poor, and the rich.  That's just the ugly truth  - so please don't tell me that dressing it up in pink and calling me a survivor or a warrior or a sister is going to make one bit of difference.

Of course, we have to find some way to feel powerful in the face of an adversity that is mostly out of our control. I just feel that we haven't quite figured out the perfect words yet. My friend says she feels more like a cancer victim than a survivor. I get that.  Victims of a random act of violence. One that affects not just our bodies, but our families and friends as well.

Even Wikipedia recognizes that the term "survivor" is loaded: "The cultural ideal of a survivor may add to individual patients' distress if the patient is unable or unwilling to live up to the ideal. The ideal survivor is bravely committed to mainstream medicine and optimistic or even certain of a physical cure. He or she is open about diagnosis and treatment and becomes an educated, empowered medical consumer. The ideal survivor, like a superwoman who simultaneously manages her home, family, and career, struggles valiantly to prevent cancer from affecting loved ones by appearing, behaving, and working as much as possible. Once the immediate crisis is past, the person may feel strongly pressured to donate time, money, and energy to cancer-related organizations. Above all, the ideal survivor does not die of cancer. People who publicly conform to this ideal are given social status and respect."

That's a whole lot of pressure from two words. I mean, who doesn't want to be an "ideal survivor"? However, living up to that ideal, just like any other, is a losing proposition. So, I challenge everyone to find new words for us to use.

Here are my top 5 so far

1. Cancer Victim
2. Cancer Kicker
3. Cancer Endurer
4. Cancer Outlaster
5. Cancer Coper