The Words We Use
Every year, National Cancer Survivors Day is celebrated on the first Sunday in June.1
I’ve been celebrating it for 10 years now, since I was first diagnosed with follicular lymphoma in January 2008.
The National Cancer Survivors Day Foundation defines a “survivor” as “anyone living with a history of cancer – from the moment of diagnosis through the remainder of life.”1
So anyone who has heard those dreaded words – “You have cancer” – and is still around to read this is a survivor.
Words matter to me, and the word “survivor” matters more than most.
It wasn’t a word I really even thought much about when I was first diagnosed. I was too busy living in the moment, worrying, to think about what might come next.
And then a friend named Shannon said something kind of strange to me.
We were talking about someone she knew who was about three years out from treatment for breast cancer. Shannon told me about a conversation she’d recently had with this acquaintance. She told me, “My friend said she is looking forward to being a cancer survivor.”
“Isn’t she a survivor now?” I asked. “You said she was talking to you a couple of days ago.”
“No, no,” Shannon told me. “She says if you’ve had cancer for more than 5 years, you’re a cancer survivor. If you’ve had it for less than 5 years, you’re a cancer victim.”
Now, I’d never heard that definition before, and I haven’t ever heard it since. I don’t know if Shannon had misheard what the other person had said, or if that breast cancer survivor was making up the definition for herself.
But when I was lying in bed that night, thinking about that conversation, I told myself something:
I’m no victim. And I never will be.
Being a survivor
To me, being a victim implies a kind of helplessness. I certainly didn’t ask for cancer – Who has? Who would? In that sense, I was helpless. I didn’t choose what would happen on Day 1 of my life with cancer.
But while I was helpless when it came to getting cancer, I was far from helpless when it came to Day 2, and every day after that.
Don’t get me wrong. As cancer patients, there are so many things that are out of our control. My body does things that I can’t stop. If I could wish my cancer away, I would.
But there are so many things I can do. I can become more informed about my disease. I can take care of myself so that recovery might be easier. I can talk to my doctor and make sure that I understand, and that I am understood. I can seek help for my mental health and emotional health. I can live each day the best I am able, and I can forgive myself for those days that I can’t.
But mostly, I can choose the words I use. I choose to be a survivor, not a victim.
Words matter. And the words we use to describe ourselves – and the words that we insist others use to describe us – might influence the way we live our lives.
Happy Cancer Survivors Day. Be sure to celebrate. You earned it.
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