Warrior. Fighter. Hero. Courage. Survivor.
These are just a few terms that may be familiar if you've ever been diagnosed with cancer. These are all wonderful words, and are usually used by people who want to support you through an incredibly difficult time in your life- people who want to honor your struggle.
I still vividly remember the first time someone referred to me as a cancer "survivor." It gave me pause- I had a visceral reaction, where I had to stop myself from revealing my cringing face. The term fell flat for me. At that moment, I wasn't sure why.
Surely, there is some truth in the term "cancer survivor"- most of us who have come through a diagnosis are keenly aware of our avoidance of death and the incredibly challenging circumstances towards becoming healthier. I understand why so many use the moniker with pride. If the name "survivor" is one that makes you feel proud and empowered, by all means-kudos to you, keep rockin' that term.
As I reflected on my reaction to the term, I was able to determine why "survivor" didn't resonate with me. Within the world of cancer, so much of the rhetoric surrounding the disease is couched in war and battle terminology. "Fight like a girl", "Cancer Warrior", "Kick cancer's ass" "Wage a war on cancer" are some popular examples. For those people who have passed on from the disease, we often read they have "lost their battle", or "lost their fight" with cancer. Is this supposed to mean they didn't "fight" hard enough? Does that truly honor their lives and their struggle?
Sure, some of us survive cancer, but I'm striving for more than survival. I'm striving to live out loud, to create, to learn more, love more, grow more, explore more, and share more during my time on earth, until I pass on and end up "studying abroad".
I never looked at my own cancer diagnosis through the war lens. I viewed it as some cells that went haywire in my lower abdomen (GO HOME, DNA. YOU'RE DRUNK.) - that my body needed a lot of help healing through surgery and chemo and teams of doctors and nurses and a comprehensive plan to get it back on track to healing itself. It was incredibly hard, but I learned much more about cancer and my body, about empathy and sympathy, about physical, mental and emotional strength, about love and support, about grief and pain, as well as joy and healing. I didn't just survive cancer. I got schooled by cancer, and then I graduated from it.
I love the power of words. I love trying to find the most appropriate, descriptive words to communicate emotions and experiences. So when Aniela and I asked each other the question, "What's an empowering term to call someone who has lived through a cancer diagnosis?" we thought long and hard about our choice of words.
We hope that if you are getting schooled by cancer, that you graduate from it with honors.