“Since you are a cancer survivor, it would be wise to run a few tests,” said the neurologist I recently visited. I cringed when I heard his words. The thought of a few tests didn’t bother me: I like it when a doctor pays attention to my history. However, the word “survivor” did.
My tests came back negative, with no signs of illness, but my negative reaction to “survivor” remained. So I went on a quest to see how other women with cancer histories felt about that label.
Sue was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease 25 years ago. Three years later she had a recurrence. “Stage 4 is usually a death sentence,” she said. “But I fought like mad -- chemo, whole body radiation, months in the hospital. I never use ‘survivor.’ I ‘terminated’ my cancer.”
Another friend said, “ ‘Survivor’ is much too serious. It was more appropriate years ago when a cancer diagnosis was a death sentence -- not now, and not for me.”
Susan has been free of cancer for 19 years. “I have no feelings about the word, one way or the other,” she said. “I don’t take things for granted even now and am much more vigilant.”
My sister Peggy is now fighting a recurrence of breast cancer. “I am a cancer ‘activist.’ I am actively fighting to save my life, not passively sitting back and surviving,” she said.
Kay, an 87-year-old friend, was diagnosed with colon cancer two years ago. She said, “I am lucky as hell. I was blessed by cancer. I’m healthy and have been given another chance to do some good. I don’t suppose the phrase ‘cancer-blessed’ will catch on, but I feel blessed.”
Another friend said, “I saw Laura Ingraham on the news. She called herself a ‘cancer conqueror.’ I like it -- I’ll use it.”
Kerry wrote, “My dilemma is that I never thought of the term ‘survivor’ in a negative light. Once we were referred to as cancer ‘victims’ -- far worse. I always looked on survivor as an improvement. ‘Warrior’? No, in my mind that means the battle is ongoing. How does ‘veteran’ sound to you?”
Veteran sounds right for me.
I was unknowingly a victim for at least three years when my breast cancer went undetected and misdiagnosed, despite regular mammograms and checkups.
I turned into a warrior when I insisted on a biopsy even though my breast surgeon insisted that the suspicious areas on my mammogram were nothing. The biopsy proved the ‘nothing’ to be a 9-centimeter Stage 3 malignancy. I battled with my insurance company in order to receive what was then the most aggressive treatment possible -- a mastectomy, chemo, radiation and a bone marrow transplant.
Yes, I did survive both the treatment and the cancer. But I don’t think of myself as a survivor. I think of myself as a veteran in a very foreign war.
Barbara Sills co-wrote “The Mother to Mother Baby Care Book,” published in 1980, and taught for 20 years at 68th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles. A resident of Manhattan Beach, she now has the leisure and energy to pursue her writing.