How to Feel Like a Survivor

The blurry joy of surviving cancer treatment

A couple years ago at the market I ran into Elizabeth, a casual friend who was gearing up for the Avon39 Walk to End Breast Cancer. I encouraged her and told her how impressed I was; most likely I also thanked her, as I am always grateful for fundraising efforts. I can’t recall if I threw my usual demurral when faced with cancer fundraisers: “I gave at the office.” Sometimes I explain my participation in case studies and trials (I am particularly proud of being at the forefront of sentinel node biopsy), usually I don’t have to. Friends and acquaintances often know my cancer history and don’t press the issue.

Elizabeth didn’t pressure me to walk, but she did launch into a surprising description of her past experiences, perhaps to highlight the fun attitude many walkers carry with them. “Last time I wore the pink ‘Survivor’ shirt,” she shrugged, “I mean, hey, we’ve all survived something.”

I don’t have much of a poker face, so I imagine my frozen half-smile did not hide my dismay. I have never worn a “Breast Cancer Survivor” shirt of any kind, and I often don’t refer to myself that way. But I’ll be damned if anyone should falsely wear the label under an ill-advised attempt to play off the universal meaning of Survivor. That’s not yours, friend, you don’t get to wear it at a cancer walk. Another head-shaking comment to add to my files of What Not to Say to a Cancer Survivor.

This memory was the first thing I thought of when I realized Sunday was National Cancer Survivors Day. Annually celebrated on the first Sunday in June, this year’s milestone might have been spent reflecting on my cancer journey, especially since I feel more myself than last year. But, really, I kinda do that all the time. Instead I found myself mulling over the word and its heft, how this day attempts to recognize us all as Cancer Survivors, but we don’t all recognize ourselves in the word.

My dear cousin Amy recently sent an upbeat update about her double mastectomy for early stage cancer. Everything went well, healing was proceeding apace, her lymph nodes were clear, and she had every confidence that it would be the end of treatment. She still has a visit to the medical oncologist to confirm that last piece, but she’s ready to move on. “I will never say ‘survivor’ because that seems like an over-reach for what I have been through, but I am relieved.”

It seems a common theme for those I know who were diagnosed early enough to have their cancer story end neatly in surgery. My sister Tracey says she reserves the term Survivor for people like me who suffered through chemotherapy or radiation. I have another friend with similar circumstances who uses the term “pre-vivor,” cured so fast and clean that it almost predates the disease. I know her experience has not been easy by any definition, but we all seem to compare ourselves to others.

These women would likely call me Survivor, and sometimes I don’t feel worthy of the term. I don’t feel it when I see others much worse off—not as lucky—as I have been. I never got cancer in my lymph nodes. It never spread beyond my breast. My cancer was not metastatic. I was never told I was in imminent danger of dying from cancer. Did I really survive cancer if my tumor wasn’t actively poised to kill me?

The truth is that question isn’t really answerable. I don’t know how imminent the threat truly was, nor do my doctors. They know statistics, odds and likelihoods; they know what usually happens when they find cancer that looks like mine in people like me and treat it a certain way. Then again, there are indications that some cancers would never grow enough to kill, and could be ignored forever. Maybe my cancer was less threatening than one of those that was caught early enough to get by with just surgery. Or maybe it was marching towards my vital organs with death in its eyes. I don’t really know.

I remind myself that surviving isn’t just about living through life-threatening danger against remarkable odds, like surviving a plane crash or a fall from a rooftop. It’s also about enduring a challenge, managing to keep on keeping on through difficult circumstances. We survive a long day on two-hours sleep, an interminable conference call, an inquisition from a prospective in-law. We survive puberty, college applications, job hunting, unemployment, marriage, divorce, love, loss…Life. We have all survived something, and have the scars to prove it.

Not so fast there, Elizabeth. I’m not giving you a pass for wearing the Survivor shirt. Yes, we all have survived something, but only those of who have survived cancer get to wear the Cancer Survivor shirt. And all of us who have heard the dreaded words are worthy. Raise your hand, be counted. We endured the diagnosis. We survived the treatment, whatever it was. We manage the memories of what we’ve been through, of what our loved ones endured. We live with the fear of recurrence. And, unlike the unlucky who lost their lives to cancer, we are still here.


Kate Riener Boyd is a writer, graphic/web designer, mom, wife, theater enthusiast, and two-time cancer survivor living in Northern California. She launched her blog How to Cancer to help other patients, caregivers and loved ones navigate cancer treatment and its aftermath with humor and honesty.

This is part of a series of guest blogs from Kate! Visit How to Cancer to read more of Kate’s take on everything cancer has to offer.

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