What Do You Call Yourself? Warrior, Fighter, Patient, Victim?

by Jane Ashley

What do we want to be called? All of us here at WhatNext.com either have cancer, are caregivers of someone with cancer or are cancer survivors. But what do we want to be called? The news media and our communities give us names, but many of us don’t like the names that others have chosen.

Cancer Journey

We didn’t choose cancer — cancer chose us. And I’d like to think that we are INSPIRING to others. We’ve taken the worst possible circumstances and done the best that we can to overcome one of the most feared diseases of humankind.

So let’s look at the names that others call us and try to understand why others may call us something that we aren’t. Every person describes their cancer experience differently. There is no right or wrong way to describe ourselves. Let’s look at some of the names we’ve been given.

Where do we get this imagery?

We may wonder how people with cancer came to be described with so many war-like words. The  began in 1971 when President Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act to try to eliminate cancer as a major cause of death. The president referred to this legislation as the “war on cancer” after cancer became the second leading cause of death in the United States in 1970.

By 1978, war and battle terminology was ingrained into the treatment of cancer. Susan Sontag’s book, Illness as a Metaphor, challenged the war metaphors that sprung up during the mid-1970s. Terms like “cancer invaded our body,” “tumors bombarded with radiation,” and calling chemotherapy “chemical warfare” became the norm and remain part of the war imagery.

Sadly, forty years later, these “fighting” terms still pervade our language. I am guilty of using this language to describe myself. When my surgeon told me that I had two choices — 1) call hospice or 2) fight, he set me up to continue using the war terminology. I always visualized my chemotherapy as little Pac Mans® seeking out and consuming the cancer cells in my body. I called myself a “cancer warrior” during my treatment. It’s difficult to change 40+ years of the “war on cancer” mentality.

Even the American Cancer Society logo has a stylized version of the St. George Sword. Those of us who have been diagnosed with cancer are surrounded by war imagery. We can’t escape this imagery because it seems to be everywhere — we find ourselves using it, too.

Cancer Terms … We All Love to Hate

Most of us have either been called one of these or have referred to someone else using one of these terms. These terms paint us as powerless and without any control over the disease. More people die of heart disease than cancer yet terms of war aren’t used to describe cardiovascular disease or treatment.

Victim. The Oxford dictionary describes a victim as “a person harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event or action.” Clearly, we are not a victim.

Survivor. According to the National Cancer Institute definition of survivor, a person is considered to be a survivor from the time of diagnosis until the end of life. Most of us didn’t feel like cancer survivors while we were in active treatment. Many cancer patients don’t feel like survivors until a significant amount of time has elapsed after their treatment has ended. But there’s more to the word, survivor. Another definition is a “person who copes well with difficulties in their life.” In this sense, many of us are survivors from diagnosis. But not everyone copes well with treatment, but they continue to live. At least for me, I’d like to be considered more than “just a survivor.”

Touched by cancer. This vague term pops up in many conversations. Most often, it means the family of a cancer patient — that their lives have been affected by their loved one’s diagnosis. But most caregivers don’t feel “touched by cancer.” They feel like they have been hit by the proverbial Mack truck.

Touched By Cancer

Fight. Fight was one of the two words spoken to me after I heard my Stage IV diagnosis. The physician who diagnosed and staged my cancer told my husband and me that I had two options. They were hospice or fight. What else could I say? I immediately said that I’d fight. I didn’t feel like I was dying so FIGHT was the only other option. This physician, my surgeon, has become my beloved friend and encourager. 

Perhaps, he intuitively knew that his language would trigger my instinct to undertake the complex treatments that would face me. One meaning of FIGHT is “to strive to reduce or eliminate.” In the context of this definition of fight, the word, FIGHT, is an accurate word to describe the varied forms of treatment that we endure.

Warrior. One meaning of warrior means being a person engaged in a struggle or conflict. This pretty much sums up what cancer treatment is all about. We struggle with our side effects. We are conflicted over the treatment options. We are worn out by daily trips to radiation and by the fatigue from chemotherapy. Those of us who do yoga come to love the “warrior poses.” These warrior poses build muscle strength and balance, and these poses strengthen us mentally too. We have to focus our mind on balance, putting distractions aside. For me, cancer treatment seemed like a long struggle — we learn that we are stronger than we ever imagined.

Lost their battle. Every day, we hear that someone “lost their battle” with cancer. No patient ever loses. This awful phrase infers that the person didn’t fight hard enough. People who live long lives after a diagnosis of cancer are alive because their treatment worked – not because they “fought” hard enough. The idea that someone didn’t fight hard enough is degrading to that person’s memory. Our medical team maps out our treatment plan. For many types of cancer, there aren’t that many options. The treatments fail. “Lost their battle” ought to be banished from journalism and the obituary columns of every newspaper and funeral home website.

Journey. There is no clear timeline of when the term, cancer journey, began. Many of us refer to our active treatment as our cancer journey. The word, journey, implies a long and arduous time spent traveling to some distant destination. A journey is not a short “trip.” Many of think of a journey as a trek across a desert or mountain range or a long voyage across an ocean in a smaller sailing vessel. But an around-the-world cruise is not the journey that we cancer patients are taking. Our cancer journey is more akin to the mule train at the Grand Canyon. It’s uncomfortable, dangerous and takes a long time.

1920px American Cancer Society Logo.Svg

So What Would You Like to Be Called?

Some of you might jokingly say, “Don’t call me late for dinner!”

Our cancer diagnosis will always impact our lives. This diagnosis is a permanent part of medical history. Our physicians will always consider our past diagnosis when we have a new symptom. We can’t just forget it. It’s always there, like the secret in the dark room.

But we are so much more than “just a cancer survivor.” We learned that we were stronger than we ever imagined. We found out that we were brave. We may begin a new career. We may be forced to retire earlier than we planned.

Some of us want to be called “inspiring.” I think of myself as “thriving.” Many of us are “grateful” to still be here on this earth. Some people tell me that I was “brave” — and I tell them, “I did what I had to do to have a chance to continue living.” We human beings are resilient. We bounce back. We persist. We find new meaning to life. We realize that life is sweet, in spite of lingering side effects. Others may refer to us in war-like terms, but others can’t define us. We define ourselves. What are you?


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