Being a "Survivor" Doesn't Cover the Quest Involved with Beating Cancer

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • Survivor.

    Why does that word bug me so fiercely? Every time I hear myself described as a cancer survivor, I mentally stomp my foot and shake my fist and shout “NO! I am NOT a survivor!”

    Which isn’t to say I haven’t had cancer and lived to tell the tale. Just that the images “survivor” conjures up aren’t quite how I view my experience.


    Survivor is the woman whose home is demolished by a tornado–while she’s huddled in the cellar–and she lives to tell the tale.


    Survivor is a fisherman whose boat capsizes in a storm, and he manages to reach the life raft, drift for 3 days with only rainwater to drink, and is finally rescued by a passing ship.

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    Survivor is the last ego-crazed, fame-hungry wacko on a reality TV show, for crying out loud. I am not a survivor!

    “Survivor” and “victim” (another word I’d gladly avoid) pair nicely together. To me, each implies passivity, a kind of patient waiting while something awful happens to you. A person may be a victim of a totally random hit-and-run accident, or be victimized by a con artist who steals away with the retirement funds in the dark of night. A survivor is the person who wasn’t wearing her seatbelt, yet walked away from the car accident.


    Did the hit-and-run victim, the cheated retiree, the accident survivor plan their fate? Did they prepare for the random moment of chance that changed their life? No. They simply… survived.

    Were cancer a sudden perfect storm of illness, a black wind that swept in out of the night, brought a person to death’s doorstep, then in the next breath was gone, those it touched (without taking) would be survivors.


    But cancer, though it’s an ill wind that howls in out of the blue, doesn’t disappear overnight. Those of us with cancer go through a long, arduous regimen of slash, poison, and burn in our attempts to shake loose of it, to force it into hiding.


    We’re ECG’d to see how strong our hearts are, so that the ensuing chemical cocktail pumped into our veins can kill the cancer without killing us. Our bodies are cut open, parts removed, other parts moved to replace them, perhaps, and then we’re sewn back up, a morphine pump kicking in every 6 minutes to make us forget the pain of the scalpel.


    And every step of the way, we’re participating in this war against the enemy who’s built a beachhead inside us, and is shoring up the walls for a long siege.


    Not only participating – we’re fighting, a howling, desperate, all-out last stand, a one-on-one with a strangely evil enemy: our own turncoat cells.

    When the best efforts of the medical community, our families, friends, and our own strong wills succeed in forcing cancer away – perhaps only temporarily, perhaps for good – we’ve earned a tougher sobriquet than “survivor.”


    The battle rages on for months, sometimes years; it’s long, it’s challenging, and sometimes the war is lost. But when it’s won, and cancer retreats from the field, we need a term for that person who went through hell and back to save their lives.


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    Survivor? Nah. We’re winners (though cancer is far from a game). We’re champions (though that implies a sporting competition, which cancer scarcely is). We’re vanquishers (though that word gets tangled on the tongue).


    We’re… cancer conquerors! Has a certain ring to it, eh? From now on, thank you very much, you may drop the term survivor when thinking of me, and substitute conqueror.


    And anyone else out there who no longer wants to be called a survivor – join me. There’s plenty of room up here on the top of the heap.

Published On: July 13, 2006