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Do You Use the S Word

Posted 2/23/2016

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  And the S word is survivor. The National Coalition of Cancer Survivors (NCCS), a very powerful advocacy organization, defines a survivor as anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer, starting at the moment of diagnosis. I suppose that is as good a definition as any other, but it does not make me embrace or even like the term. I try very hard to avoid it.

There are good reasons for using the word: it is simple, straight forward, widely understood. And there are good reasons to avoid it: superstition suggests that it is bad luck to self-define in that way, the word is used in too many other violent contexts, it may infer that people who have died from cancer did something wrong. I fall mainly into the superstition group, but will admit that it is tough to find and always use other language. I am more comfortable saying: "I have had two breast cancers". Am I a survivor? I don't know yet.

   How do you feel about the term? Do you use it? This recent study from The Journal of Cancer Survivorship suggests that women who have had breast cancer are most likely to use this term, and men who have had prostate cancer are least likely. For others, who knows. Here is the abstract and a link to see the whole article:

Are you a cancer survivor? A review on cancer identity.

Cheung SY1, Delfabbro P2.



Individuals diagnosed with cancer have been shown to interpret the term "cancer survivor" differently and this may have implications for how they cope with their illness. This article reviews the empirical research conducted in the field and aims to formulate recommendations for future research.


A literature search was conducted on PubMed, PsycInfo, Embase and CINAHL using search strategies customized for each database: standardized subject terms and a wide range of free-text terms for "cancer", "survivor", and "identity". Data from 23 eligible papers were extracted and summarized.


Analysis of the studies revealed that individuals diagnosed with cancer could be categorized into five groups based on their attitudes towards being a cancer survivor: embracing, constructive, ambiguous, resisting and non-salient. Identification as "cancer survivor" was found to be highly prevalent within the breast cancer community (77.9 %) and least among individuals diagnosed with prostate cancer (30.6 %). Self-identifying as a cancer survivor was related to better quality of life and mental wellbeing, with those having a childhood diagnosis more likely to transition successfully into adult care.


The findings show that, for a substantial group of individuals, "cancer survivor" is not a title earned upon receiving a cancer diagnosis or completion of treatment, but an identity that may be embraced in time after deliberation. Future studies should examine the endorsement rate in less common cancers and whether choice of cancer identity varies over time.


Researchers and healthcare professionals should use caution when using the term "cancer survivor" so as not to alienate anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer but does not identify with it.


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