Oct 20, 2009 - 10:36 am
I think it’s time we rethink the lexicon we use when discussing cancer. Two specific examples jump to my mind: “survivor” and “lost his/her battle with cancer.”
The Oxford definition for survivor is as follows:
n. a person who survives, esp. a person remaining alive after an event in which others have died: the sole survivor of the massacre.
And what does survive really mean?
v. [intrans.] continue to live or exist, esp. in spite of danger or hardship: against all odds the child survived. ■ [trans.] continue to live or exist in spite of (an accident or ordeal): he has survived several assassination attempts. ■ [intrans.] manage to keep going in difficult circumstances: she had to work day and night and survive on two hours sleep.
When you hear the word Survivor, it’s always used as one who has survived cancer. I say we make it current tense. One who is SURVIVING cancer. Each day is a struggle, an honor, a responsibility, a gift. With each breath and drip, they battle, facing horrible changes to their bodies and minds. Each day, these warriors fight to do it all again, over and over. Is that not surviving?
A few weeks ago, I read a blog post from a breast cancer Survivor on Planet Cancer (a social networking site for young adults). She recently learned that her cancer has returned, but decided to participate in her local Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure event, regardless. She has participated every year despite her hatred of the color pink, and hoped this year to find some comfort by running again. Instead of comfort, she found shame. Her post recounted in detail her fear of being found out as a fraud – her word – for wearing the survivor t-shirt she received at registration. Suddenly she’s been robbed of her security, her health, and now her identity, too.
When we use the word survivor in conjunction with cancer, we take it to mean one who has defeated cancer and is now living cancer free. Lance Armstrong = Cancer Survivor. Christina Applegate = Cancer Survivor. I (hopefully) = Cancer Survivor. Technically, I’m in remission, ten months to be exact. That’s a far, far cry from cured and confirmed cancer free. Am I not surviving? What if, God forbid, my greatest fear becomes a reality and my cancer returns? Will I have to relinquish my title of Survivor? I’ll dig in both heals and fight with all my being (and all the beings I can recruit to help me, too), but that is not the same, is it? And what about those currently on the front lines, struggling with their diagnosis, filling their virginal veins with toxic chemo sludge for the very first time? What do we call them? Patients? The Afflicted? Poor Souls?
We’ve seen a lot of celebrity cancers deaths over the past several months. Each time the news coverage starts, the anchor begins the segment with, “So-and-so lost her battle with cancer.” Two words in that phrase make me cringe – for very different reasons.
First, the word “lost” makes me gnash my teeth in frustration. I don’t particularly like “succumbed to illness” either. I’d rather they just said “died of cancer”. Would you ever say that those that died in the 9/11 attacks lost their battle with terrorism? Does a hit and run victim lose her fight with drunk driving?
Look at Farrah Fawcett for a moment. She “lost her battle” in June of 2009 after three years fighting the disease. She resisted the disease to see another three years of life after her initial, terminal diagnosis. She travelled, spent time with her loved ones, and participated in snowball fights. She made a documentary of her journey and helped created awareness for a rare and decidedly unglamorous form of cancer. That’s far from a loss in my eyes.
Patrick Swayze is another fantastic example. He, too, was faced with a brutally harsh prognosis. He, too, rallied and fought with an intense determination. Patrick fought one hell of a fight. He bought himself time. He completed a new TV project, wrote his memoirs, spent more time with those he loved, and put his affairs in order. How can that be considered losing?
I’m equally frustrated by the use of the possessive “his” or “her” battle. It implies the blame or shortcoming is on the part of the afflicted. What about insurance companies, drug companies, the government, the medical community, or even society as a whole for ignoring the never ending deluge of carcinogens we pump into the earth, air and water?
As cancer rates continue to explode across this country (and in far greater numbers than other countries) why do we continue to place the responsibility on the individual? As much as I’d love to find a cure for all the various cancers plaguing the populations of the world right now, I’d love even more to prevent them.
I’d like to live in a neighborhood without notices posted by the NJDEP that a cleanup is in process. I’d like to drink a glass of water without fear that I missed a bulletin warning inhabitants to boil their drinking water today. I’d like to breathe air that isn’t thick with soot from the diesel busses passing under my window. I’d love to be able to blindly go about life without fear that the can of soup I just opened is lined with BPA and I’m bringing another round of chemo on myself.
The most basic human actions - eat, drink, breathe, and sleep – are life threatening and it’s MY battle with cancer? Cancer can appear at any age, at any time, in any place. It will continue to do so, and with increasing frequency unless we change our thinking. This is OUR battle.
Granted, it’s all semantics – but words are how we express and define ourselves. They should not be used lightly. For a terrified shell of a person navigating the most difficult journey of their life, words may be all that are left.