Survivor? Warrior? What am I?

Andre the Giant in the movie, “The Princess Bride”

My sister-in-law Teresa recently brought this article, “I Have Cancer. Please Don’t Call Me a ‘Survivor’” by Howard Wolinsky to my attention (the article may require setting up a free login to read). It captures my reluctance to be called a cancer “survivor” or “warrior.” Some people adopt one or both of these labels readily–that’s fine with me. But I won’t wear either on a t-shirt.

The “Survivor” label suggests I’ve successfully lived through cancer and cancer treatments. I haven’t. My cancer is incurable and aggressive. My treatments will continue until I go on hospice. “Survivor” is too shiny and tidy to describe my experience.

“Survivor” suggests someone who has been through an arduous hero’s journey, engaging the cancer in battle, enduring the horrific treatments to attack cancer, getting past toxic side effects and coming out the other side having conquered the killer. — Howard Wolinsky

Many in the prostate cancer crowd embrace military metaphors, such as cancer “warrior.” Personifying my cancer as an enemy gives it more humanity than it deserves. Myself, I feel more like a battleground than a warrior. And “warrior” carries with it expectations for how I will feel and behave that often don’t describe me.

“Fight metaphors [are] also not good. When we lose, that means we didn’t fight hard enough. I think most of those terms and phrases are for the ‘non-cancer’ folks so they can feel better, not for us.” — Rich Jackson, quoted by Howard Wolinsky

Having rejected two of the most popular descriptors, I am left in a quandary. What is my relationship with cancer? My favorite designation so far comes from one of my support group friends. I am a Professional Cancer Patient. It’s what I do for a living. Literally.

5 Replies to “Survivor? Warrior? What am I?”

  1. The labels probably don’t matter in the greater scheme, except, perhaps to those who are not living with cancer. The suggestion of your support group friend seems a good way to make this journey secondary to the fact that you are still yourself, still Mark, while living with the treatments. And that is the way we should all continue to think of you.

    1. Actually the labels seem to matter a great deal to many people with cancer, especially those not living the “happy ending” cancer story that people prefer to hear or believe. But thank you for your comment and for still thinking of me as Mark–not something I can do every day.

  2. I completely agree. The labels matter a great deal. People need to stop telling cancer patients how to feel as well. You are allowed to feel anyway you want. Some days you might be able to carry on and other days you might not. Some days laugh and some days cry and that should be ok. I dont have cancer but to me I hate the term warrior which makes me feel like I have to be always strong. Thanks Mark for putting into words exactly what I think and feel about those labels. It helps me continue to support those with cancer.

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