Emaciated figures staggering through the gates of a concentration camp.
Soaked shadows shivering in the icy seas around a shattered ship.
These may be the first images you think of when you hear the word survivor. Or maybe your first thought is of women in pink T-shirts smiling for a camera at a cancer fundraiser.
Survivor is commonly used these days to name people who are alive after a cancer diagnosis, but not everyone likes the term. Dr. Susan Love, best known for her work as a breast cancer surgeon and the author of Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book, was diagnosed with leukemia in 2012. Now about a year out of treatment, she writes about her discomfort with the word in a recent blog, “Don’t Call Me a Survivor.”
She writes, “Survivor implies that you have vanquished cancer when most of us live with the knowledge that it could come back at any time. Now, with many of us living for years with recurrences or metastatic disease and others being ‘overdiagnosed’ with diseases that may never have gone on to become life threatening . . . the term survivor feels misplaced.”
Her blog elicited a wave of responses, most from people who also do not like being called survivors. Why wouldn’t someone like this word?
“I haven’t really survived yet.” When I was working at the survivors’ table at a fund-raising walk handing out bags with information and goodies, several women who approached the table in headscarves asked if the bags were for them. Newly diagnosed, they didn’t see themselves as survivors. They saw themselves as sick people in treatment. My reassurances that they were already survivors didn’t change the scared expressions on their faces.
One of my friends says, “If you make it to lunch on the day of your diagnosis, you are a survivor!” But not everyone can see herself that way. Overwhelmed with anxiety, some people see survivorship as some distant shore when cancer will be behind them.
To go back to my shipwreck analogy, everyone clinging to a bit of wreckage in the sea is a survivor as long as they are alive. Some people in that shipwreck died right away. Not everyone floating in the ocean will be rescued, but at any given point, all the people who are still alive are survivors. That’s how it seems to me, but I can understand how the folks who have just been thrown into icy water, aren’t ready to call themselves survivors until the rescue is accomplished.
“Survivor is such a wimpy word. I’m a warrior who beat cancer.” Those images of people rescued from a concentration camp or from a wreck that are part of our associations with the word survivor are another reason some people don’t like it. The word seems too passive to them. They picture themselves as active participants in their cure. They have battled cancer and won. They prefer to call themselves cancer thrivers or conquerors or warriors.