On Being a Survivor

pink ribbon

Having made it through chemo and surgery and having been told by the doctors that there is no residual disease, I have entered the third stage of my interaction with breast cancer.  Researcher.  Patient.  Now survivor.  That’s a hard word for me.  There are some benefits to using it—everyone knows what it means: I had breast cancer and I didn’t die. It means that at big breast cancer races I get the pink shirt and the cool swag bag.  It gains me access into a whole new community.  A community, it turns out, filled with vibrant, beautiful, compassionate women of all ages.

But I worry about using the term survivor.  In fact, I’ll probably use it when absolutely necessary (I love me some swag bags!) but I’m not sure I’ll refer to myself as a breast cancer survivor much.  I survived, but not because I’m stronger or made wiser decisions or am more favored by God.  I worry that to call myself a survivor somehow implies that those women who have gone before me, the ones who have succumbed to breast cancer, were weaker.  In fact, those ladies likely possessed more strength than I could ever imagine.

To survive something means that you’ve gotten through something hard, and I suppose that fits.  Many survivors—survivors of war, natural disasters, acts of terror– feel guilt about having survived.  Even long before the doctors pronounced me cancer free, I felt this guilt.  Throughout all of my chemo treatments, I was not nauseated.  Not a single time.  I had no sores in my mouth, my fingernails were in good shape, my fatigue never reached the level of debilitating (though I’m sure the napping helped).  Frankly, for the most part, I felt great.  And at the same time, I felt horribly.  Horribly for the women who were nauseated, completely worn down, couldn’t eat.  I wanted to have a great attitude all the time, but sometimes I felt bad just for being able to have such a great attitude.  Never was that guilt more acute than when I sat, wig-clad, at my good friend’s funeral.  It’s not fair that she has to be labeled “breast cancer victim” while I get to wear the badge “survivor.”  She was a strong, healthy, Godly woman.  I’m not better than her.  I just have a different story.

You won’t see a big pink ribbon magnet on the back of my car or anywhere on this site. (Though my daughter does love them, bless her heart.) At least not now. It has nothing to do with wanting to hide the fact that I’ve had breast cancer.  You won’t hurt my feelings by calling me a survivor, but that’s just not how I want to think of myself.  I prefer you think of me as a wife, a mother, a daughter, a friend.  Think of me as a researcher, an advocate.  We’ve all survived something tough.  We’re all survivors.

One thought on “On Being a Survivor

  1. Well said.
    The term survivor is also a problem term for those of us in ongoing treatments. And the comments we get prove that our friends and family don’t understand metastatic cancer has no cure or ending. “But, I thought you were done.” “Well, it’s just a little pill and a monthly shot.” “Eat this or don’t eat that or take this supplement and your body will beat the cancer naturally.” “So, when are they going to say you are cancer free?” “Just stay positive, you will beat it.”
    But, then I’m not real fond of being called brave either. Brave is someone who does something heroic. I just did what I had to one day at a time. Each day is a gift from God. I did not earn it by being good, or positive, or brave, or eating my vegetables.


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