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Don’t Define Me By My Cancer

People who have lived through cancer just want to get on with their lives — head into the future like everybody else, free of cancer, free of its memory. That’s why the labels others affix to us can make us especially testy.

Take, for example, the label survivor. Please. It look me a while after diagnosis to understand why this word annoyed those who have survived. Finally, when I started to be lumped into that category, I got it. The word defines us by our disease. And how can we move past this diagnosis if we are forever labeled according to it?

Some women prefer the word thriver, and I get that. It is active — it shows we are fully engaged in life. It’s a positive, affirming word. Surviver, by contrast, means we exist. We didn’t die. Not dying is a good thing — an extremely good thing — but it is not the only thing. If it is, then we are not really living, are we?

Still, I need no label. I am Pat. I had breast cancer and I, thank God, got over it.

What do we call survivors of heart attacks? I call them Hank and Herb and Mike. What do we call survivors of strokes? I call them Jean and Gary. Cancer need not be in a category of its own — the big scary disease. Those of us who have weathered its storms want to move beyond it. We’re wives, mothers, daughters, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, friends, lovers. We’re proud of these roles and find these labels wonderful — they make us fit in, feel a part of the world, of society, of our families, our communities.

Survivor sets us apart, and we’re tired of being special in a cancer sort of way.

We’re also writers, doctors, teachers, editors, students, artists, photographers, computer specialists, managers, volunteers, and tote a laundry list of other accomplishments. We have worked to earn these labels and encourage you to see us for what we have done, not what was done to us.

Then there is the issue of our courageous battle. I had several people tell me that I was so courageous while I went through treatment. My reaction was usually a highly articulate, “huh?” It is not courage to put one foot in front of another and just do what you need to do, usually while terrified and confused. Some of us do it with less complaint than others, but that is not courage. It is just good luck — a positive attitude, perhaps a better diagnosis, smoother response to treatment, or a support system that keeps us grounded.

To me, courage refers to soldiers in Afghanistan, or the person who jumps into a raging river to save a woman whose boat has capsized, or politicians voting for what they know is right but might not get them reelected.

And, frankly, it applies more to our caregivers — like my husband, who never let me say, “I have cancer,” correcting me to “You had cancer.” Or the parents of children with cancer who have to fight for proper care and deal with the financial hit while supporting a confused and sick child. Or the children watching their mother lose her hair and reminding her how beautiful she is and how much they love her, all the while hiding their own fear.

The problem with calling cancer patients courageous, again, is that it sets us apart from everybody else. We are the Person with Cancer. How scary. How tragic.

Does an obituary say a person died of a courageous battle with heart disease? Why not? Why is cancer elevated to such a stage?

And why does it bother us?

It’s a problem because when you are constantly told you need courage to get through this journey, it makes the road seem that much rougher, the climb that much steeper, the destination that much less clear.

All we want is to be normal again. To be just a person who once got sick but hopes not to get sick again. As someone who is moving on, leaving cancer far behind, kicking dust in its nasty old face.

This post was borrowed with permission from Pat's personal blog, Positives About Negative. Pat is the author of Surviving Triple Negative Breast Cancer and the co-author of The Magazine From Cover to Cover, also published by Oxford. She has been a magazine writer, editor, consultant, and professor for more than 35 years. She headed Drake University's magazine sequence for 22 years before taking over as director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2004. In May 2006, Pat was diagnosed with early-stage hormone negative breast cancer and retired from Drake in 2007 to focus on health writing and her health. She had surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, and is now healthy, fit, and cancer-free.

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