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Cancer Lexicon Needs to Change

Posts: 4
Joined: Oct 2009

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.

SonSon's picture
Posts: 186
Joined: Jul 2009

I stand up and applaude!

You make very salient points that demonstrate the need to be more open, progressive and just in our views of cancer and the role of society, in general, in the whole continuum of the disease.

When you mention the celebrities and their extended life after a short prognosis, and these are notable cases because of their celebrity - there are many nameless people doing the same thing, when they die I agree that they did not loose. The won. They lived longer than expected with full knowledge of the grim prognosis and lived life to the fullest possible for them. Additionally, they win because they added to the awareness of the whole cancer issue.

I see that you have only posted a few times here. I hope you keep posting.



soccerfreaks's picture
Posts: 2801
Joined: Sep 2006

Yours is a well written piece, clearly thought out. The end of it, though, where you advise that it is 'all semantics anyway' sort of refutes the notion that one might contemplate and even dispute your arguments.

I will do so anyway, with the best of intentions.

Regarding use of the word 'survivor' by those who have been diagnosed with cancer -- and that is correct, the word is generally applied immediately upon learning that one has cancer -- I think your own definitions, as supplied by Oxford, fortify the appropriateness of the terminology, extending beyong the use of 'survivor' to 'battle' as well.

I have not personally heard of anyone in disagreement with the usage of 'fighting' when used to describe how one deals with a cold or with the flu: one is fighting a cold, one is fighting the flu. No one thinks twice about that usage.

Yet, considering the efforts one undergoes to defeat cancer or to hold off cancer or to delay cancer's insidious effects, fighting a cold pales in comparison.

One does not truly fight a cold. One succumbs, one marginalizes the effects as best he or she can, but one does not actively fight it. One does, on the other hand, actively and diligently fight cancer, with any number of weapons, including surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and any number of alternative methods.

One survives cancer as one survives any battle: one may not make it through the war, to be sure, but one does not passively accept one's death; one fights, one upgrades one's weapons, one upgrades one armor, one does what one has to do to keep surviving, to keep living, just as one does in a battle that involves guns and grenades and missles and snipers and so on.

Surviving a cancer diagnosis IS in fact, continuing 'to live or exist, esp. in spite of danger or hardship'.

As for the issue of tense, I know of no one who suggests that survival is anything but current tense. The only people I know who are uncomfortable with being labeled survivors are those who have been recently diagnosed and who have not yet undergone treatment. I would argue that they are survivors nonetheless, because they are alive, because they are pursuing the continuance of their lives, because they are pursuing the defeat of cancer.

Your tale about the person considering herself a fraud because, apparently, cancer has returned, is a sad one indeed. She is, after all, the epitome of survivorship, and has the best possible chance to exemplify survivorship: once down that road and cleared, now facing it again, she will hopefully want to continue her fight, her battle.

What happens to her, ultimately, what happens to you, my friend in remission, ultimately, will never take away the fact that you were (and are) a survivor. On the day you die, to be blunt, we will say that you WERE a survivor. Until that day, you ARE a survivor.

A recurrence of cancer does not strip you of your survivorship. Being a survivor is not the same as being free of cancer. Being a survivor means that you have faced cancer, may be facing cancer, and that you are fighting, that you are succeeding to a greater or lesser degree, and that you are persevering. There are other names for those who are cancer-free.

Your teeth gnashing over the phrase 'lost the battle' is a rather problematic argument. The victims of 9/11 were not fighting a battle with terrorism, and it is likely that the victim of a drunk driver was not actively fighting drunk driving at the moment.

Cancer survivors ARE actively fighting a battle against a disease that has been diagnosed, with treatments prescribed and administered. Your logic holds no water. It is apt, it is fitting, to say that one has lost the battle with cancer, especially given the efforts that many of us go through, the anguish, the pain, the emotional and physical stress we endure, to fight it, to vanquish it. It is apt. It is fitting.

While you might not considering dying 'losing', a great many of us who fight the battle against cancer consider that not dying of cancer is the ultimate goal, if we are fortunate enough for that to BE a goal. I can assure you that in the event cancer beats me, it would not upset me if my obituary said that I had lost my battle with cancer. And there are any number of kids I coached (and their parents) who would understand exactly what that means: that I busted my *** to beat it and I lost.

Your last several paragraphs indicate what, today, is a somewhat disingenuous notion about cancer: that we are victims, that it is not our fault, that the world is to blame.

If you live in New Jersey and believe that the air and the water and the ground are killing you, MOVE.

The science we have today seems to indicate that cancer is caused by a combination of factors, including genetic predisposition (blame your parents), environment, and behavior. This is why some old bloke can smoke and drink his entire life and live into his 90s, while some child dies of cancer at the age of five. It is not just your environment (and if it is, again, you are free to move). It is not just behaviour (I smoked, I drank, I got cancer, while all of my smoking and drinking friends continue to smoke and drink and dance the day away). It is not just genetics, although I would put my money there, in genetics and epigenetics, as the sources for cures and preventions.

You are correct that this is OUR battle (a word I thought you detested, by the way). The battle has been joined. Cancer survivors, caregivers, scientists, medical professionals, researchers, philanthropists, governments, we are all joined to the battle.

This is a war we will win, I am confident. It may not happen soon enough to save me, but it will happen. You are clearly a soldier in this war, an eloquent one at that, and I salute you for your concern.

Semantics, I would venture to say, are not the problem. Understanding, beyond words, is everything.

Take care,


mr steve
Posts: 286
Joined: Sep 2009

My wife has cancer. I smoked, drank, chewed, for over 40 years and my wife gets cancer? We are fighting something every day just like Fay said. if not one thing then another. Rhonda made a t-shirt for our first visit to the medical onc (we already have a surgical onc)


Yes this is OUR battle.


grandmafay's picture
Posts: 1639
Joined: Aug 2009

I read this thread earlier, and my first thought was, "What a waste of time." Then I took a walk with my dog. Yeah, that's him in the picture. I decided that it was more food for thought. Anything that gets us thinking is never a waste. The words may not be used entirely correctly, but I found them comforting. My husband was a stage 4 cancer survivor for 6 years and he lost his battle just a few days ago. He didn't just survive those 6 years, though. He lived them. He made memories for those of us left behind. And it was a battle. Actually it was many battles - battling the disease, battling depression, battling insurance battling side effects of the chemo. We won some and lost others. Maybe I'm not using the word correctly, but it helped me think of it that way. So it is semantics and they are just words, but if they help those touched by cancer in any way that's ok by me. Words are our way of communicating more than facts. They help us express our feelings as well. Fay

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