A couple of months ago, I marked the five year anniversary of my diagnosis of advanced prostate cancer, although “anniversary” implies a happier event than this milestone may deserve. Yes, I’m still very much alive and am in pretty decent health, even though the after-effects of radiation and hormone therapy continue to remind me every day that I have experienced cancer.
By most definitions, this makes me, along with about 11 million other Americans, a “cancer survivor.” As the accompanying photo shows, the phrase, “prostate cancer survivor” is tattooed on my right wrist, albeit in Tolkien’s (Lord of the Rings) Elvish letters.
“Survivor” is not a word I particularly cherish. Especially now that in popular culture, “survivor” is the last person in the eponymous TV show still standing after nine weeks of devious tomfoolery while camping out on some tropical island. Nevertheless, “survivor” is by far the most popular term to describe those who have been diagnosed with cancer, treated, and are still alive to talk about it.
One wonders why those who have passed through other major diseases and trauma such as heart attacks and strokes are not also called “survivors.” It probably comes back to the dread evoked by the word “cancer” and its historic brand image of “death sentence.” This, even though nearly 65% of adults diagnosed with cancer in the developed world are expected to live at least five years after their cancer has been discovered. There’s even a National Cancer Survivors Day every June 1st.
None of this is to say the term “cancer survivor” isn’t controversial. There is an enormous range of who fits under the appellation. Women diagnosed with non-life-threatening pre-cancerous breast condition such as lobular carcinoma in situ count as “cancer survivors.” So too, men, diagnosed with indolent prostate cancer, which is highly unlikely to be the actual cause of their death. But the unfortunate person diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer with only weeks left is also a “survivor”–at least for the moment. If “cancer survivor” were a beverage, it would be a generic red table wine, not an exclusive vintage bottled at a French chateau.
But the thing about “survivor,” that really bothers me is its inherent passivity, as in “I’m still alive, but perhaps only barely.” I’m not alone in this feeling, and I’ve heard many people define themselves as a “cancer warrior.” Besides its overt militarism, “warrior” connotes an active engagement, an energetic fight to the death. But the definition of “warrior” also carries the probability that cancer may win out in the end. Also, for many of us diagnosed and treated for cancer, fatigue has been its major residue. The idea of marshaling yet more energy to fight off the cancerous beast in active battle seems a little misplaced, if not daunting.
“Warrior” is certainly preferable to some ugly neologisms such as “previvor.” (Per Wikipedia: “those who have not diagnosed with cancer, but have a survived the predisposition, or higher risk, of cancer due to certain genetic mutations.”) Then there’s “aliver,” which is just as passive as “survivor,” but sounds really dumb. Others suggest “thriver,” which certainly implies a happier outcome than mere survival, but perhaps a little too upbeat and perky for those of us who are simply happy to wake up in the morning.
The thesaurus is unhelpful. Synonyms at thesaurus.com include “residue,” “leavings,” “legacy,” and even “remnants.” None seem promising candidates to replace “survivor.”
Finally, the dictionary: Definition number 3 in the Random House Dictionary defines “survivor” as “a person who continues to function or prosper in spite of opposition, hardship, or setbacks.” Which is not a bad description of what we cancerians must do. Most of us at least function, if not exactly prosper.
So, it seems that for all its drawbacks, “cancer survivor” is probably the best, albeit not terribly satisfying, term. Even the French (“Survivant du cancer”), and Germans–ever the language borrowers–(“Cancer Survivor”) seem to agree.
But if you have a suggestion for a memorable noun or two-word phrase that carries all the emotional baggage of diagnosis, treatment and then living with the aftermath of cancer, I’m definitely open to your proposal.