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Not a Cancer Survivor

Posted 12/8/2015

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  I strongly dislike the verb hate, but I do hate the term cancer survivor. First, I am superstitious, and it seems to be asking for trouble to use the phrase about myself. Equally important, it seems to congratulate those of us who seem to be healthy (as far as we know) and suggests criticism of those who have died. Did they not try hard enough? Did they make some poor decisions? Was it their fault? The answer to all of those questions is a very big NO.

  The trouble is that there seems to not be another phrase. Anything else involves a lot more words, a description or explanation of one's medical history. I generally say something like: "I have had two breast cancers", but I am a bit nervous about the word had. Clearly this is a first world problem, and I probably have better things to be thinking about today, but I am thinking about this because of this wonderful essay by Susan Gubar that Barbara sent. It is not new, and I remember reading it before, but it is definitely worth reading. Here is the start and a link:

Not a Cancer Survivor
By Susan Gubar

I am not a cancer survivor, and neither are the women in my cancer support group.
Mary feels that cancer was a “blip” in her past that no longer defines her. Diane is a survivor, but not of
cancer; she is “a survivor of treatments of cancer.”
Patricia and Judy are not survivors, because they are undergoing their first treatments and have no idea
how effective they will be. Not a survivor either, Sarah braces herself for the time — not if, but when — the
cancer will return. And there is Allison, who, like me, feels put off by the word “survivor”; somehow the term
sounds too heroic to claim for ourselves.
In newspaper articles, on TV shows and Web sites, and at social gatherings, many people with cancer
define themselves as cancer survivors. The term is meant to be optimistic, suggesting that such people have
beaten cancer, defeated the disease. Through a valiant struggle to endure, they have managed to get through
the trauma of cancer and emerge on the other side, perhaps sadder but wiser and possibly even better
equipped for existence, for they are now attuned to the precious, precarious nature of human life.
While I can only congratulate such people, surely there are others (besides the members of my support
group) who cringe at adopting such an identity — and for a number of reasons. Does the celebration of the
triumphant cancer survivor cast those who died from the disease in the role of victims who somehow failed to
attain the requisite resiliency to overcome it? An American propensity to circulate stories of valiant
individuals triumphing over great odds must make people coping with recurrent, chronic or terminal illness
feel like duds. And even for those patients with cancers that can be cured, claiming to be a survivor might feel
dangerous — like a jinx, a sign of the sort of chutzpah or hubris that could bring about dire reprisals from the
powers that be.


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