The use of the word “survivor” can arouse strong feelings


In his latest epistle on living with cancer on MedPage Today, Howard Wolinsky addresses what he has come to understand is a very sensitive topic.

Your sitemaster did discuss this issue with Howard as Howard was thinking about this article. Suffice it to say that, in your sitemaster’s fairly extensive experience, different people can and do think about this issue in very different ways for all sorts of very different reasons.

Consequently, we should all be sensitive to the fact that some people feel empowered by “labeling” themselves with specific terms while others can find the same language extraordinarily dis-empowering when applied to them. Much of this probably says more about our individual personalities and mindsets than it does about the “rightness” or the “wrongness” of the term “survivor” and other terms Howard refers to in his article (at least when applied to cancer, and other disorders too).

5 Responses

  1. I personally do not like the term “survivor”. It implies achieving the point of being “cured”, which is premature for anyone with our disease as it can return decades after what appeared to be successful treatment. It also implies one has “survived” a lethal event. For the majority of those with our disease, our prostate cancer had a low ultimate risk of death compared to other issues. I consider myself a prostate cancer patient currently in what hopefully will be a long-term durable remission.

  2. Jon: I could not have said it any better! Perfetto!

  3. This paper certainly causes the reader to ponder over what should be, could be, appropriate verbiage relating to one’s diagnosis with any form of cancer.

    I wrote a brief opinion piece that was published in a journal the I titled “The Battle with Prostate Cancer.” Perhaps it was my military career and the battles that ensued with our military during that career that prompted me to see, at least my life with my prostate cancer, as a battle.

    Having read this piece, I can see where, in reality, no one diagnosed with any cancer is actually a “survivor” whether or not they were able to rid themselves of their disease or it will be hanging on for years until their demise (either of their cancer or other reasons).

    The word “survivor” can have any number of uses, but among them, according to Webster and other dictionaries, it can mean “to remain alive: to continue to live,” thus, it can apply to those diagnosed with a disease yet “continuing to remain alive, continuing to live.” My opinion piece now edited:

    The Battle with Prostate Cancer My opinion: Charles (Chuck) Maack (ECaP), Prostate Cancer continuing patient since 1992, Advocate, Activist, Mentor.

    ‘Dealing with Prostate Cancer or any cancer is like going to war; patient and physician must determine the best strategy to repel the attack of the cancer enemy and counter-attack with all the armament available. Prostate Cancer can be a fierce enemy and can likely cause some damage if in an advanced stage of development. If the patient perseveres, loads his system with the appropriate counter-measures (knowledge, understanding, appropriate treatment), he can cause cancer cell eradication or at least an armistice wherein those cancer cells are held back from continuing growth and proliferation. Having achieved an “armistice,” though not totally eradicating his cancer, he may experience years of continued “life.” If he loses in his battle, it was not in vain. At least he gave it his best shot in the wish to live!’

  4. The American Cancer Society coined the term “cancer survivor” years ago to include anyone who ever had a diagnosis of cancer and was still alive.

    Not sure how you can avoid or change that term.

  5. I’m a bit late to the conversation and agree with Jon’s first-line comments. Survivorship in the field of cancer is time-limited (3-year, 5-year, 10-year, etc.) and does not carry that finality of “success” that is associated with making it through a battle/war.

    The term “war” has entered the cancer lexicon since Nixon “declared war on cancer” in 1973. To enter a war posture requires hypervigilance and expenditure of energy which can, over time, become exhausting, quite debilitating, and deprive a prostate cancer patient of the opportunity to learn to “live well with his cancer”.

    Mukherjee, in his Pulitzer Prize winning biography of cancer (The Emperor of All Maladies), proposed that in order to win the war against cancer we may have to redefine the meaning of victory. Perhaps a negotiated and renegotiated peace process might work — specifically when dealing with the prolonged time course of prostate cancer progression.

    Returning to the word survivor – I prefer to consider myself a “participant” – an active process of education dialogue with my physicians to keep abreast of the latest information and clinical trial possibilities.
    Paul Schellhammer

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