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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.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Matt Goldman
    5 months ago

    Good stuff Daniel. Much about this is very relatable. And I particularly like the term de-assify.

  • jneurms
    6 months ago

    I think you raise some interesting points, Daniel, and it is reassuring to know that I am not alone when facing many of these at best awkward moments. In my case, “survivor” is a bit of an enigma — I have CLL so there is no real concept for me of having survived it. I am still here, so I am currently surviving, and I did survive chemo (although if not surviving that were a risk no one told me). It is not really a binary question for me; it’s not going to go away but I am not planning on doing so either any time soon.

  • Yolanda Brunson-Sarrabo moderator
    6 months ago

    This indeed is a process and sometimes- “cancer survivor” a play on words, but frankly, many people hang onto that survivor part. I think however the individual copes and deal with this, whether in remission or not is how each person has to move forward. As for lasagna, I’m with it before and after remission. Smile. Continue keeping on brother!

  • Ann Harper moderator
    6 months ago

    I too was treated differently at first. Some people thought I was dying. It was frustrating. Now, since my cancer is chronic, people will ask how I’m doing, but then we can move on to fun things.

    I don’t have to worry about dating because I have a wonderful husband that stood by me, but I dont think I would talk about the cancer until it became a little serious. I wouldn’t hide it, I would just leave that conversation for another day. Just me. I wish you luck with the dating thing. You will find the one for you!

  • Daniel Malito moderator author
    6 months ago

    @annharper Thanks for reading, and thanks for the support Ann. I’m glad you have someone by your side, I’m sure it helped you get through things. I had my mom, so that was good, but decidedly different, ha ha. Keep on keepin’ on, DPM

  • Crystal Harper moderator
    6 months ago

    Your perspective on the topic is so interesting to me. I look at things very differently but can also relate to almost everything you said, especially that very last paragraph.

    About dating after cancer, I know it totally sucks and I don’t think you should have to talk about cancer to someone you’re just meeting for the first, second, or third time. It’s in your past and really isn’t anyone’s business (at least until things potentially get more serious). Of course if someone googles you and decides to bring it up, that’s different but you should act nonchalant about it because it is no longer the main focus of your life.

    When I was on dating apps after cancer, the thing everyone liked to do was ask for my Instagram. It made me so uncomfortable because I was pretty open on social media through my diagnosis and knew the second they looked at my profile, everything would be out there. After over explaining my situation to people before giving them access to my account more times that I can remember, I started to just share my profile and not say anything. I realized I didn’t owe them an explanation. Either they accepted my situation or not. After I started doing this, I realized that most of these guys would show so much respect for me after realizing what I went through and it would quickly weed out the people who weren’t supportive of it (which ended up being a great thing!).

    My advice (unsolicited, sorry) is to look for those people who have nothing but respect for what you’ve been through and be totally unapologetic about your cancer history.

    Things WILL get better.

  • Daniel Malito moderator author
    6 months ago

    @crystal_hu Thanks, Crystal. I think I’m getting to that point – where I just don’t mention things and be normal for a while. Googling guys is kinda standard procedure now, though, so I do have to be wary of that. Plus I can’t take a decent photo to save my life and all the online app photos now are like freakin’ glamour shots. Lol. I just want to avoid making the same mistakes I tend to always make and did with my marriage and it weighs on me. Oh well, like you said, it’ll come eventually. Thanks for reading Crystal. Keep on keepin’ on, DPM

  • Ann Harper moderator
    6 months ago

    Nice response!

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