As a cub reporter at The Washington Post, I wrote my share of obituaries, and, back then, The Post required a cause-of-death in every obit. “He died of cancer,” a family member would sometimes offer, “but we don’t want that in the newspaper.”
And more than once, after I explained The Post’s policy, families preferred there be no obituary — nothing at all — over a mention of cancer. Better to let a cancer victim’s passing go un-noted than to have the scarlet C sewn to the legacy of a loved one.
That was the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. Today, of course, we’re wearing wristbands color-keyed to specific cancers: blue for prostate, pink for breast, yellow for Lance and living strong. We blog about our cancers, we wear ribbons and t-shirts in solidarity. We’re activists who lobby and go to public hearings to argue our cause. We walk and swim and run and bike on behalf of cancer friends and family.
Ashamed no more: Cancer’s been outed.
And we’re no longer victims; we’re now “survivors.” That’s what we cancerians used to be called: victims. Yes, those were the days when cancer was a death sentence, and a shameful one to boot. (I’ve certainly never thought of myself as a cancer victim any more than I consider myself a victim of right-handedness. It’s just a fact.)
In the argot of cancer, “survivor” is neither a definitive nor a conclusive term: It doesn’t mean you’ve won, doesn’t imply you’re cured, and certainly doesn’t announce that you once — past tense, here — had cancer. Survivor, in fact, applies to all cancerians, every one of us, from the beginning point of diagnosis to the end point of death. Standing tall or standing small, with cancer, you’re officially a survivor.
Survivor is a term, therefore, of such length and breadth that it cannot possibly posses any meaningfully descriptive depth: It’s just spread too thin. It is, quite simply put, merely the anointed successor to victim. But many cancerians question the use of “survivor” and object to it (sometimes fervently so), while others simply reject it outright. I have to admit I’ve been taken aback by how rigidly some people feel about this business of how we describe ourselves (survivor, warrior, fighter) and the cancer experience (slog, journey, process, battle, dance).
Truth be told, I’ve rarely used the term “survivor” to describe myself — or any other cancerian. To me, it’s always had a hokey, politically correct vibe to it. Ergo, my term “cancerian,” a (hopefully) deft side-step of not only victimhood but also survivorship.
So it’s odd that, today, I somehow have this sensation, in the seventh year of my cancer journey, of being a…cancer…survivor. Why?
For one, and for the nonce, I’m not now a “patient”; I’m not undergoing any treatment for my Stage 4 prostate cancer. No pills, no shots, no infusions, no radiation, no chemo, and the last milligram of hormone therapy washed out of me well more than a year ago. In fact, my quarterly check-up today came back as no evidence of disease (NED). For those keeping track (and I most certainly am), this marks 18 months of NED.
So I’m now living in an interlude I call “between treatments.” Because of the cancer found in my lymph nodes at surgery, it’s highly likely (inevitable, even?) there’ll be recurrence and more treatments at some point in my future.
And that’s why calling myself a cancer survivor seems deceptively — OK, I’ll say it: early, premature, even presumptuous.
But cancer, as I’ve noted, is not just a physical disease but also a mental one. We cancerians know the coiling of the nerves brought on by a looming test; we feel the visceral gnaw of what dark truth those tests might reveal; and we all can visualize the sword of recurrence dangling above us.
“I don’t think we’re ever really cured of cancer,” I’ve heard more than one cancerian say, “because you always have the fear it’ll come back.” Or as my lymphoma blog-friend Jennifer put it: “We are always emotionally a little bit in that oncology waiting room, no matter what our [cancer] status.”
Maybe, then, being a survivor is not about outrunning the physical disease we have but about all the attendant, cancer-related fears we harbor, treatments we endure and side effects we bear — however long, however brief that time between those end points of diagnosis and death.
I’m living through — I’m surviving — the cancer experience.