Why I Don’t Like Being Called a “Cancer Survivor”

Like every other person who has received a cancer diagnosis and lived to talk about it, I have become a cancer survivor.*  Which is a wonderful thing to be.  The first Sunday of June is National Cancer Survivors Day. People can purchase shirts that proudly proclaim “Cancer Survivor!”  The American Cancer Society sponsors and maintains the Cancer Survivors Network on the Internet, with individual discussion forums for twenty-four different types of cancer.  Amazon.com lists more than seven thousand titles containing the words “cancer” and “survivor.”

But the term “survivor” does not capture all the dimensions of my ongoing relationship with cancer. Survivor implies a fixed goal of eventual achievement: I was treated for cancer, the treatment is over, and now I am a survivor. An authentic relationship, on the other hand, is a dynamic, ongoing process, not just the achievement of a static goal.

“Survivor” implies that the cancer has stepped out of my way and given permission for me to go on living my life. And, as a baby boomer, this seems to put me in a role that is way too passive for me to accept.

So, even though “cancer survivor” is already deeply ingrained in the culture—and these things take a long time to change—perhaps we boomers can come up with a better term.  We “endure” cancer, but that has the same flavor of submission.  (Not to mention that “cancer endurer” is almost impossible to pronounce.  Same goes for “cancer experiencer.”)

Perhaps “cancer marathoner.”  It’s certainly a long, exhausting race, but maybe a bit too athletic.  “Cancer veteran?”  Maybe, but “veteran” sounds like an old person, not necessarily an image that we boomers, even those of us now in our 60s, are willing to embrace.

“Cancer owner?” Perhaps. We’d rather own our cancer than having it own us.  But that term also seems awkward, like we went out and purchased our cancer, when in fact it was a gift none of us wanted.

* There are some schools of thought that say you aren’t a “cancer survivor” until you’ve lived without recurrence of the cancer for five years. But then I have no idea what those of us who have not yet achieved the five-year mark would be called.  “Potential survivor?” “Candidate Survivor?”

QUESTION: Are you happy with the word, “survivor”?  What term might replace “cancer survivor” as a more authentic expression of living with—and beyond—treatment for cancer and coming out the other side?


    • Craig Pynn says

      Quite a few people use that term. Some of us feel it’s a bit too militaristic, but what do others think?

      • John says

        This week, while getting a massage at my cancer center from a fellow cancer “sur­vivor” I had the epiphany: “cancer descendant.” We had talked about how much we both didn’t like the term “sur­vivor” and she said a lot of patients she sees feel the same way. We are just lucky, that’s it.

        Why do have to call it “fighting” cancer anyway?” Being brave might make us and people around us feel better but it has not been proven to affect health outcomes.

        There are two things I like about “cancer descendant.” The first is the aspect of lineage — a direct con­nection that remains unbroken for the rest of our lives. The second is the familial impli­cation. Don’t we often rec­ognize each other like long-​​lost relatives?

        I’m going to ponder this some more and include it in the book I’m fin­ishing, “How to Have Cancer” (NOT another per­sonal story!)

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