Why I Don't Want to Be Called Cancer Survivor

Beth Brophy Health Guide
  • One of my favorite episodes of my favorite HBO show, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” written by and starring my idol Larry David, involves a misunderstanding over the word survivor. The joke--admittedly, black humor, my favorite kind -- involves equating the experience of a Holocaust survivor with a “survivor” of a reality show.

    Which brings me to why I hate being called a cancer “survivor.” Why I cringe every time I hear the word. Why I never wear the pink shirt that identifies me as a “survivor” during the Race for the Cure walks. I’d rather blend in with the rest of the crowd.

    I’ve always associated “survivor” with the relatives and other Jews who experienced the pogroms and death camps of Hitler’s Germany. Having cancer is no walk in the park, but it seems pretentious to equate it to the unfathomable evil of the Holocaust .
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    Then, there’s the “kineahora” problem. Allow me to translate for the non-Yiddish speakers. Although she’s been dead for 15 years, I can still hear the voice of my beloved and superstitious Grandma Frieda, warning me against giving my good health any “kineahoras.” That means calling attention to your good fortune, and thereby tempting God to laugh in your smug face.

    Anyway, only the thinnest of threads-- a lump or bump yet to be discovered, an ache that doesn’t go away-- separates those of us that are doing well right now from those who have Stage IV, or terminal breast cancer. They will not survive. So why use a word that separates us from them?

    Can anyone think of a better word than “survivor?”
    I sometimes use the word “patient,” but that implies someone who is currently undergoing treatment. Although with the widespread use of tamoxifen for five years, and then another five years or so of taking aromatase inhibitors, some of us don’t cease being patients for a decade or longer.

    While I’m at it, there are other words in the cancer lexicon that I also detest. Doctors who say patients have “failed” their treatment, which is clearly backwards. Doctors who say “malignancy” because they think it sounds less threatening than “cancer.” Obituary writers who say someone has fought a “long battle with cancer,” as if it was ever a fair fight between equals.

    Now I’m starting to sound as cranky as my hero Larry David.
Published On: October 17, 2005