Breaking from the ‘Survivor’ Label

Steve H | Administrator |

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.


  1. I think being a survivor does still means that somehow or another we are still dealing with cancer in some form or another. There are all sorts of side effects that take hold of our body even years after treatment. We still have the scars from surgery, the remains of radiation burns (in some cases, I got 4th degree burns from my radiation), effects of changed hair texture, color (in the great scheme of things not all that important, but changes just the same.) I am dealing with numbness in my hand that they say may be related to the radiation treatment I received back in 2004. I do think that being a survivor still means that somehow cancer is still in our lives. I am proud to say that I am a survivor because I feel I beat the odds and can give other people suffering hope of survival. Those who have never experienced cancer have no idea that surviving the treatments/surgery is really just the beginning. We are faced with a lifetime of challenges, not to mention the fear that it may recur.

    Jennifer | | 9:06am

  2. In the small seaside town that I live in, I ran into two women, both mothers that I have enjoyed over the years from elementary school, soccer games and freezing ice hockey rinks and of course, the beach. I’ve been a nurse in the past, loving my career. I’ll always be a nurse. I’ve been a mother, I am a mother, always will be. I’m a friend, a writer and I love to garden and to cook. I love breezy nights. Martha’s vineyard is one of my favorite spots. I love a good walk. My only daughter, my youngest is going off to college in a month or so for the first time. Her eyes are the exact color of my own.
    It’s all part of my story. Just like getting through cancer treatment. I’m the hero of my own story, from the chicken piccata that comes out perfectly during an intimate celebration dinner to walking that extra mile in spite of my painful reminders of rectal cancer in the past. So many people have endured crises and we who love them want to remind them that they are not defined by that trauma. No, it’s just part of the story. And I think of those two women I’ve run into recently, learning that each is in cancer treatment.
    I want them to be survivors and for their stories to go on and on…

    khewitt | | 8:18am

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