Through blogs and comments, patients and experts explore what it takes to find good health care and make the most of it.

Why I Don't Like the Phrase 'Cancer Survivor'


article image
Follow us on Facebook

This post was contributed in response to Jessie Gruman's What I Wish I’d Known Earlier about Cancer Survivorship series about the unique needs and responsibilities of people who have been diagnosed and treated for cancer.

I am not proud of this, but the celebratory, heroic use of “cancer survivor” gets me riled up.  Every time I am confronted with the ads, the billboards, the walks, and so on, I wish the survivor celebrations didn’t rub me the wrong way. Reading the last few sentences is no doubt causing you to think to yourself – what a jerk this woman is. Why in the world would celebrating cancer survivors make anyone feel angry? Well, because these celebrations cast the survivor in the starring role of hero and winner. The rhetoric tends to make it sound like survivors did something special and deserved to triumph. And then I remember my brother-in-law, a dynamic guy in his early 40’s who died of acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL). He so wanted to be a survivor.

The heroic use of “cancer survivor” comes wrapped up in all the battlefield analogies used when talking about this terrible set of diseases. In some ways it is peculiar to, and dates back to, the launching of the War on Cancer. Fighting this war requires physicians and individuals diagnosed with cancer to be brave soldiers, to never give up, to try everything possible to beat the enemy: cancer. Underneath it all is the message – if you are cured you won! You’re a winner! But, if you aren’t a winner, then you are…what? A loser?

Why is it that survivors of other devastating personal traumas – fires, floods, tornadoes – rarely use the celebratory hero language?  Mostly, they speak of themselves as lucky.

I believe cancer survivors are also lucky. They are lucky if the stochastic spin of the mutation roulette wheel gives them tumors that respond. They are lucky if the idiosyncratic nature of biomedical research has found effective treatments, and they are lucky if the treatment doesn’t destroy some major organ system, or wreck their immune system, or damage their minds. They are lucky if, during the course of never giving up and trying that one more thing, they don’t acquire a drug-resistant infection that kills them.

As Jessie Gruman has eloquently described – survivors get to survive, and it is rarely triumphant.

My sister (a compassionate nurse) shares my feelings, but it is harder for her to talk about them. Her husband was a fighter. He wanted to live. He wanted to beat ALL. He was willing to try anything and everything. His desire to fight till the bitter end meant he did not have what has come to be called a “good death.” He didn’t die because he didn’t try hard enough or because he didn’t want to live enough. He didn’t die because he wasn’t a winner. He died because he was unlucky. He died because he had the wrong kind of tumor.

I also get angry when I think about what it must be like to be someone who, after much soul-searching, bravely decides to forgo end-stage treatment. In my view, this takes a special kind of courage. Does  the heroic survivor rhetoric make it hard for those patients who, after weighing all the evidence, looking at the statistics, and considering the odds, decide that they are not going to fight till the bitter end but rather choose, in a what is surely a strange turn of the phrase, to make peace with their disease?

Sometimes I wonder if my negative reactions to the celebrations of survivorship reflect my fear that all the talk of battling, beating, winning, or losing doesn’t reduce cancer to an adversary we can beat if we just stay strong. Unfortunately, strength tends to be one thing serious illness robs from you.

Lastly, the celebration of survivors tends to lump too many people into the same boat. In the celebratory spirit, cancer survivor encompasses everyone from individuals treated for relatively benign conditions to individuals who survive what Jessie Gruman has called devastating diagnoses.  Survivors in the latter group know that they didn’t fight harder, or try harder, or want to live more than those who didn’t survive. They were just luckier.

More Blog Posts by Susan Fitzpatrick

author bio

Susan M. Fitzpatrick, Ph.D., is Vice President of the James S. McDonnell Foundation and President of the Association for Women in Science. She is also an adjunct associate professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy and Occupational Therapy at Washington University School of Medicine. Dr. Fitzpatrick lectures and writes on issues concerning applications of neuroscience to clinical problems, the role of private philanthropy in the support of scientific research, and on issues related to the public dissemination of and understanding of science. She serves on the boards of the Ontario Brain Institute, the American Occupational Therapy Foundation, and she is a past member of the board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Tags for this article:
Cancer   Inside Healthcare   Promote your Health   Jessie - Cancer Survivorship Series  

Comments on this post
Please note: CFAH reserves the right to moderate all comments posted to the Prepared Patient® Blog. Any inappropriate postings will be removed.

John says
August 2, 2013 at 10:27 PM

I too dislike the term "cancer survivor." It was just dumb luck I felt the granules in my scrotum and was treated for large B-cell non-Hodgkins lymphoma last year. All scans have been clear BUT I did nothing to make that happen.

I just thought of an alternate term today: "cancer descendant."

It appeals to me because it evokes the permanent nature of our relationship to cancer; the state of mind that is always present to one extent or another.

The other thing is that "descendant" implies family. That is not a rallying cry for warm, fuzzy community sing alongs. It recognizes the instant recognition many of us share and the comfort there is in that sharing. OK, OK, a little warm, a little fuzzy.

Anyway, I'm going to think more about this and include it in the book I'm finishing about having cancer (NOT another personal story.)

Michael says
August 3, 2013 at 10:45 PM

Some cancers, and/or some treatments do involve heroic decisions, actions, and struggles. The survivors of those situations can indeed call themselves heroes, IMHO. My "battle" with prostate cancer involved a 2-month vacation, roughly a half-hour per day lying comfortably in the treatment center, and minor side effects during and post- treatment which have had negligible impact on my life. I don't consider myself a hero -- rather an informed consumer who made a smart treatment decision. I realize, however, that no treatment can guarantee you will be cancer-free for the rest of your life, and while enjoying good health am happy to participate in the survivor celebrations to give hope and encouragement to those who might one day have to make such a decision.

Carolyn Thomas says
August 4, 2013 at 12:56 AM

Thank you Susan for sharing your informed perspective on this. The combat vocab of "fighting" a catastrophic diagnosis is often played out in obituaries that start off with: "After a long battle with cancer..."

My own reflections on the word "survivor" are a bit different than yours, but what I've learned so far is that if you line up 10 patients, you'll get at least 10 firm opinions on what they like and why.

I am not a cancer patient, but five years ago I experienced what doctors call the "widowmaker" heart attack - which tells you something about how they view its prognosis. When I now describe myself as a survivor, it's with the very profound and humbling awareness that I did indeed survive what many do not - much like those who somehow walk away from life's disasters (avalanche survivors, earthquake survivors, car accident survivors, etc.)

I also know that, whether in disasters or diagnoses, some walk away and others don't. Sometimes it's pure fluke - like sitting in the only section of a downed plane that didn't burst into flames on impact. Sometimes it's pure struggle and determination to escape the wreckage. And sometimes, as Buddhists tell us, it's just "what is, is. . ."

But just as importantly, I also see nothing noble in surviving, having come to grips with the given reality that sometimes, bad things do happen to good people. Period. The reality is that I didn't survive because of what I did or didn't do. I just survived it - so the semantics don't concern me. Based on results, it seems that I am indeed a survivor. I wrote more about this in a guest post here in June: "Looking for Meaning In a Meaningless Diagnosis" -

To me, it's not about luck, and it's not about winning or losing, and it's not about trying harder or thinking more positively. It just is what it is.

linda sorenson says
March 9, 2014 at 4:50 AM

Your post on the internet spoke directly to my heart. my father died died of brain cancer only a few days after I had surgery for colon cancer. I hate saying I lived cause of God's grace.....I lived cause of luck....and I hate the term "cancer survivor."

Francis says
April 21, 2014 at 3:50 AM

Thanks Susan,

I like your Post, and I agree with your sentiments.

Personally, I have come to the conclusion that LUCK is by far the largest factor in cancer survivorship, but you cannot find many people willing to admit that. I think this is partly because we live in such a deterministic society - we all deeply believe that if we just make more effort / try harder - then we will get a better outcome. It is a nice idea, and it does apply to some things - but it is clearly not always the case.

Also, I think our society has a deep fear of death, and an unhealthy obsession with longevity. Most people simply believe that a LONGER life is a BETTER life. This is, in my opinion, deluded. We all die. And we are naturally going to die at different ages - some older, some younger. Personally, I believe 'how you are' as a person when you die - is more important.

As for my story: I am certainly NOT a "fighter"!... I have stage II Colon cancer and I have refused (actually 'dropped out of') Chemo. My post Op survival rating is very high, and the Chemo offered negligible extra benefit (+2.5%) and it came with a lot of not-so-negligible risks! So I figured re-occurance, or non-reoccurance, is now simply a matter of luck.

Jennifer says
May 20, 2014 at 3:22 PM

Thank you this is exactly how I feel. I think it's just a way to promote "pink" and sell products.

Ivan Appleton says
October 14, 2014 at 9:21 PM

Finally, someone who writes what I think. I have terminal lung cancer (I'm a non-smoker). What I really hate about the "survivor" thing is that it is so often dishonest; often meaning "hasn't died of the cancer...yet". Right now I'm a "survivor" in that sense, but surviving means to me passing through a danger and out the other side, not simply treading water before the water closes in over you.

I hate the battle metaphors. "winners" and "lost battel with cancer". I hate the moral element, the idea that virtue is involved, rather simply good or bad dice.

I even hate the way people without cancer look to those with cancer for inspiration. It is exhausting having to play the role of the "brave" cancer patient. Brave??? Brave is going into battle when you have a choice to run away. But there is no choice. I'm just dodging machine gun fire for as long as I can (which won't be for long at all).

I hate it most of all when I'm told to "think positive" by people without cancer, of by "survivors" who've had a completely different kind of cancer -usually operable - who fantasise that their own attitude and virtue had something to do with their good luck.

Anyway, enough of that. I have my kids to think about, and that's all that matters.

Ivan says
October 14, 2014 at 9:23 PM

Oh, and Carolyn....I had a heart attack at 35 and my cancer diagnosis at 48. Heart attack can't compare, sorry. Terminal cancer is different (or other terminal progressive illnesses like motor neuron disease).