Word Weight: Survivor

by JoAnna BarkerJune 11, 2019View more posts from JoAnna Barker

I had never thought twice about the word survivor when people began throwing it around after my treatments.

To me the word made sense because, simply put, I lived and my cancer had not. The word seemed to fit and I didn’t have any objections to using it. It wasn’t until I started researching and talking to other young adult cancer patients that I realized that the word held a lot more weight than I had ever imagined.

To some young adults, the word “survivor” is as toxic as the chemo running through their veins. My questions and curiosity led me on a soul search to discover what it was about this word that’s causing a great divide in the cancer community.

If you are passionate on either side of the issue, I’m not writing this article to persuade you in anyway. I’m simply a neutral party, trying to understand both sides so that I too can come to a conclusion that will fit my own personal experiences and outlook.

I wanted to start my journey with the basics. What is my personal definition of the word “survivor”? Most people around me use the word to describe a person’s ability to live through some sort of event or crisis. Whether you’ve survived a life-threatening illness or you’re simply surviving another day of work, the word is often thrown in to many different types of situations. In fact, I have a shirt that says I survived the Great Wall of China. I thought for sure I would die before reaching the top but somehow my legs kept pushing me forward.

Two hours later I had “survived”, and I was rewarded with a spectacular view.

I also know that surviving something does not always mean a happy ending. I’ve survived many in-class presentations, but that doesn’t mean that I aced them. I also didn’t carry any physical side effects with me after surviving my in-class presentations (at least not any that lasted). Even though I’ve used the word to describe events like this, I’ve come to realize that my personal definition usually equivalates survival with physical scars and side effects that last for months or years to come. It’s very rare that I think about mental scars that may show up in place of physical ones. I know that they are there, but I don’t often think of them first.

It’s not until I experience mental battles that I realize they are something I have to fight through just as much as physical ones.

Because the word is used in so many contexts, the actual debate should focus on using the word in regards to cancer. Being a cancer survivor and being a survivor of just about anything else are separate topics. I don’t tell people I’m a Great Wall of China survivor, but I do however tell them I’m a cancer survivor. We’ve all survived hundreds of circumstances and situations, but when it comes to earning the title, I tend to save that for those of us who have faced death and told it to get out.

So what makes young adult cancer patients hate the word so much?

There are many reasons for these feelings of ill-contempt. Some argue that calling yourself a survivor may give cancer power that it doesn’t deserve. Others shudder at the word as they watch a friend or family member lose the war against the same disease they themselves had defeated. For some of us, surviving cancer may be as simple as an outpatient procedure. To others, cancer means years of chemo cocktails and putting parts of our lives on hold. Cancer comes in all shapes and sizes and no two treatments ever look exactly the same.

Does that mean then to earn the title of “survivor” your cancer experience must meet certain qualifications? That’s for you to decide.

What this comes down to is an idea I like to call “word weight.” Words only hold as much weight as you give them. I’ve learned that words are like dust particles. They float through the air, attach themselves to things, and then we get to decide whether or not to dust them off or let them settle on us for years to come. Whether or not a person lets the word “survivor” settle in on their identity is completely up to them. Even if their friends and family members disagree with their choice, I believe that post cancer patients who are trying to reclaim their identity reserve the right to take on whatever words they feel best reflect who they are or who they have become.

What I’m about to suggest may frustrate those of you who already have a strong opinion on the matter, but bare with me. There are going to be times when you may feel strongly about another person’s title. They may call themselves a survivor and you may not agree, or the opposite may be true. Although you feel you are in the right (and you may have very valid points to support your opinion), it is best to channel your inner Elsa, and let it go. Life is difficult, cancer sucks, and all of us are trying our best everyday to recover from our traumas.

If we get caught up in our opinions and begin wars against each other, cancer gets to sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.

Don’t let cancer enjoy the show. Tolerate each other with grace and acceptance. Remember that everyone is trying to live their best life and they will each handle their experiences differently. There will be plenty of people in the young adult cancer community who will frustrate you with their words or actions but remember survivor or not, we’re all in this together.