As more and more people are living with cancer and as the healthcare community is working hard to incorporate this reality into an evolving model of care, this word ‘survivor’ is taking on greater significance…
Within healthcare we use ‘survivor’ in a very specific way to connote someone’s condition, where the cancer is held at bay (so to speak) for a length of time (such as five years). It has a clinical meaning. But, is that how the word ‘survivor’ feels to someone who is dealing with cancer?
For me, ‘survivor’ seems to keep the person who had had (or is still managing) cancer as being defined forever by their disease. It can become not just a label that comes after a person’s name, but THE label: Jane D., cancer survivor. It blows all other labels out of the water. It seems to say that cancer still dominates her life.
While I might be: Steve H, Red Sox fan, the Sox don’t dominate my life (they really don’t!). So, too, Jane D. might find her cancer is always going to part of her life, but she doesn’t want to be defined by it.
The other thing is that ‘survivor’ can feel, to a layperson, that their cancer is done and dusted. In reality, we know that an increasing number of cancers are becoming more like chronic conditions to be lived with and managed, once past the acute phase.
So, can you be a ‘survivor’ and still have the condition? And still have the condition, but not be defined by it? It strikes me that we need a new word for a person who had cancer and is now cancer-free and a new language for people who are managing their disease.