Man with a red S on his chest and a bunch of arrows pointing at him

Surviving "Cancer Survivor"

Now that 2019 is upon us, it has me thinking.  It’ll be my first post-cancer year.  Which means, succinctly, I’ll be a “cancer survivor.” Yes, that thing that all people who beat cancer get branded with but no one really knows what it means.

What is a cancer survivor?

A cancer survivor. No matter what I do from now on, I will always be known as a cancer survivor. It’s like being the guy who ran away with his daughter’s college roommate – even if he saved 100 kids from a burning building people would still say “Hey you know that guy who ran away with his daughter’s college roommate? He saved some kids or something.” It follows you around for the rest of your life, and it makes people treat you with a certain reverence, almost as if your cancer is actually terminal and no one told you. It’s a scarlet letter of a different kind, but is it a good thing?

Personally, I’m of the mind that anything that follows you for that long isn’t ideal. Even if it’s something good, you’ll still only be known for that thing. That guy who won Jeopardy all those times, you think people will ever stop asking him trivia questions when they see him in the street?  What is “definitely not?” Judges say yes.

In addition, when people find out you are a cancer survivor, whether by whispered rumors or by reading your blog (I’m the second one), they immediately treat you differently.  Suddenly, even if you were the biggest a$$hole on the face of Planet Earth, you somehow get de-assified, as if the chemo also killed the person’s inner jackass. “Oh that guy?  He never pays anyone back and he’s declared bankruptcy so many times they named the Wheel of Fortune bankruptcy wheel section after him. It’s just called Frank now.”  “He’s a cancer survivor.” “Oh!  Well, I’ll happily co-sign that payday loan then.” Being a cancer survivor doesn’t really change the person underneath. If they were an insufferable boor before cancer, chances are, they will be just as insufferable afterward. Cancer isn’t the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Tonight's survivor special: lasagna

Look, all jokes aside, the fact is that people are going to treat you differently for a long time after you have cancer. It’s not as pronounced for me because I’ve had a chronic illness since age nine, but even I have one, humongous, glaring, ridiculous example. My (ex)wife decided that even though she signed up for a life of rheumatoid arthritis, she checked out after the cancer diagnosis.

As I said, people treat you differently when you get cancer and even after you beat it. Also, if chemo gets rid of your tumor and your wife, then people treat you really, really, differently. I’ve eaten more homemade lasagnas in the last year than I have in the rest of my life combined, and my grandparents were Italian. Not that I’m complaining, mind you, lasagna really takes the sting out of cancer. And divorce.

For those of you reading who are the friends and loved ones in this scenario, let me just say a few words. First, all of us appreciate and love the fact that you are so kind and generous during an admitted low point. It’s comforting and extremely gratifying to know that so many people care about us.

Here’s the thing, though, cancer is unique in the pantheon of illnesses in that there is an entire cottage industry built around its treatment and care. There’s an entire “cancer culture,” if you will, and it’s just about inescapable when you get diagnosed. It’s basically the cancer channel 24/7, and you can’t find the remote. This makes it incredibly difficult to forget you have cancer, so anything that allows us to escape and just be normal can be a godsend.

One of the best things you can do for us is to treat us like it’s just another day, like normal.  Obviously, we can’t go jumping off cliffs and wingsuiting through crevasses if that’s what we did before, but we aren’t made of glass either, and if we need help we’ll ask.

Surviving survivorship

Conversely, those of us who have cancer have to be patient and understanding. People lose their minds once they hear the c-word. Often, friends and family aren’t sure exactly what to do, so you have to be accepting. If someone’s response to your lymphoma diagnosis is to bring you a picture they painted themselves and you can’t tell which end is supposed to be facing up, well, then, you smile and make your best guess which side is the top. It’s no different when you become a “cancer survivor.” You have to be understanding, and this includes people you meet after you have been through it, something I’m just starting to find out myself. 

Trying to meet people on those horrid dating apps is tough to begin with, but try having your entire history of serious illness, divorce, and general craziness being plastered all over the Internet, accessible with one Googling (which is now a standard operating procedure for every girl who dates online). Yeah, welcome to my world. It’s difficult not to judge, and even though I’m starting feel it may be a lost cause I try to be sympathetic. My life is going to be daunting to anyone who reads about it before they get to know me. Hell, it’s going to be daunting after they get to know me too, just with more laughing and less fancy dinners.  At least most of you have the option to dribble out the cancer stories like a drippy faucet when you meet someone new. For me, it’s fire hose on a full blast straight to the face from the second we start talking. Ever try to drink from a fire hose?  Not if you like your lower jaw where it is.

“Cancer survivor” is a bad term for something that’s really out of our control. Either we beat it or we don’t, it’s not like “dance contest winner,” or “boat owner,” you don’t actually have to do anything besides not die. A low bar, to be sure, so I think we should stop giving the term so much reverence. You don’t see people giving up their seats for “licensed drivers” and car accidents kill many more people than cancer. Talk soon.

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