Monday, June 6, 2011

The Hoopla of National Cancer Survivors Day®

Just when the marketing of cancer feel-good gimmicks cannot get more insulting, there's National Cancer Survivors Day. Oops, I forgot to include that pesky little registered symbol.

My bad, so sad.

Once again, here is an attempt -- through a fake holiday -- to extol those who have "survived" cancer (whatever "survived" means) instead of honoring those who died from cancer or are dying from cancer.

Once again, this huge cloud of denial shrouds our very culture to the core: denial that many, many people are NOT surviving cancer. Denial that money is NOT always being funneled properly into research, but into feel-good campaigns. Denial that people with metastatic disease are NOT being honored or maybe even considered survivors.

They are forgotten. On purpose.

By society's accounts, I am a breast cancer survivor. That's how I introduce myself in social circles because it's a term that most people understand.

However, I'm not comfortable with that word, "survivor," which connotes some sort of superhero who has battled and defeated the demon known as cancer.

"Survivors" are not heroes, but our society puts us up on a pedestal -- all because we have not died from the disease...yet. Those who die from cancer are not weaker or less tenacious than those of us who "survived." Cancer can come back at any time -- and with a vengeance, no matter how hard a person tries to stay healthy. 

The problem is that on a subliminal level (or maybe not too subliminal), there's a blame game going on: those who survive did something heroic; those who don't survive just weren't tough enough.

I can tell you how I spent National Cancer Survivors Day yesterday. Irritated that such a day existed and reminded that being a "survivor" is not all it's cracked up to be. We have ongoing medical issues, as a result of harsh treatments. We are at risk for other cancers due to the very treatments designed to help us. We must deal with survivor's guilt, as most of us at least have lost someone to cancer and wonder why we survived. And the experience of having cancer is the experience of losing control of one's life.

"Survivors" can also have PTSD, some of whom must be on psychotropic medication and/or need counseling. Others may have a recurrence, thereby stripping them of "survivor" status.

Truth is, whatever the outcome, nobody affected by cancer is a hero. We are just human beings.

We don't need a Survivors Day.

We need a cure.

I am a professional writer and have published numerous academic and magazine articles, as well as an essay on my breast cancer experience in the anthology Voices of Breast Cancer by LaChance Publishing. To obtain my postings regularly, please subscribe to this blog by clicking the orange subscribe button. I can be contacted at and


  1. Beth, Thank you for this outstanding post. You have successfully articulated points about survivorship that I completely agree with. Like you, I am also uncomfortable "wearing" this 'survivor label' and I think there is an underlying message hidden in this label. The message that says those who don't survive are somehow to blame because they didn't "do" cancer right. I agree, we don't need a Survivors Day, we need a cure. Well said, Beth, thank you.

  2. What a well written post, Beth. Thank you. I know this doesn't get us closer to a cure, but it sure is comforting to know that I'm not alone in my distaste for the "s" word.


  3. Great post, Beth! Thank you. I have always bristled at the idea that we are somehow heroic. We're just a bunch of folks trying to get through the day like anyone else, we simply have different drugs. But mostly I hate the idea that people somehow assume that those who die were not good enough. They didn't "survive" enough; didn't want it enough. We all want to live - some of us are luckier for a little longer, that's all.

  4. Beth, you said so much here, so well. I'm especially touched by your point, cancer causes us to lose control of our life. I never really thought of it that way before, but you're exactly right. I think I may have had a problem with that and didn't realize it. I'm going to give that some good thought.

    And thank you for saying we don't need a Survivor's Day, we need a cure. Absolutely! None of it means anything without a cure.

  5. Nancy,

    You said it so well -- about people feeling they didn't "do" cancer right. Survivorship is a tricky term, for sure. I'm not sure what is a better word than "survivor," but there has to be a better one.

  6. Katie,

    Thank you for commenting. You are not alone in your distaste for the word "survivor." I feel awkward saying it.

  7. Julie,

    Thank you for reading and commenting on my posting. I know, that "hero" label can't get us very far. I resent being looked at as a hero, and I resent the fact that our society deems those who die as less than strong. Life just isn't fair.

  8. Stacey,

    I really appreciate your reading and commenting. I totally agree that it's meaningless to have a day for Survivors. The best gift our culture could have is a cure.

  9. I was planning on posting on the word 'survivor' too - I dont like it either, just like 'journey' ... arrrg.

    I like what you wrote, it always is nice to shed light on a different point of view...

  10. Beth, you have done it again! I have no idea what being a cancer survivor actually means. What I do know is that I lost my dearly beloved husband to the dreadful disease while I myself live with 'disabilities' possibly caused by the very treatment that was supposed to save my life and I am now being asked to 'trust' them yet again.
    Cancer is an 'industry' in my opinion and I have lived with cancer [either my late husbands, or my own]since 1978. I do not give to cancer research and I refuse to be acknowledged as a 'survivor.' What would we do without the honesty of writers such as yourself? Thank you.

  11. Hi Beth, you're always posting comments on breast cancer blogs that I also read, so I want to connect with you, too! I agree that "survivor" is not an optimal, or even acceptable, word for the state we find ourselves in. People who haven't been punched by cancer (a phrase coined by Lori Hope) just don't understand, figuring that "survivor" is a neutral, non-offensive term. But it's too neutral, too blase. They need to hear our voices and "get it" or at least get on the bandwagon. Thanks for sharing.
    XX Jan

  12. Dear Knock Knock It's Cancer:

    Thank you for reading and posting on my blog. You are so right: words are not adequate to describe the breast cancer "experience." I don't like that word either. Yes, and "survivor" is not an adequate term either.

    Thanks again!

  13. Chez,

    Thank you so much for your kind words! I'm so sorry about the death of your husband from this horrible disease. Once we are touched by cancer, it changes our lives forever. We are never the same.

    Yes, how does one learn to trust medical people after they never have told us of the disabilities we get as a result of cancer treatment? I, too, have problems from surgery and chemo. And goodness knows what radiation did to me.

    I'm sorry you are enduring so much right now. Just know that so many, many people are in your corner sending love your way.

  14. Jan,

    Thank you so much for visiting my blog. I like the term "punched by cancer." It is very fitting. "Survivor" is inadequate. It just seems like words are inadequate to describe the cancer experience.

    I hope you will read my next blog titled "My Other Life," done in the tradition of my fellow bloggers, where we write about who we are outside of the cancer world.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful comments and for reading my blog. I do appreciate it.

  15. Beth, I look forward to your next blog post "My Other Life." I contributed mine on my blog ( a few weeks ago. I love how Marie orchestrated the whole thing. Can't wait for Marie's compilation of results after June 30. Keep on writing along; I enjoy being a reading passenger.

  16. Just discovered your blog and can totally relate to not caring for the word 'survivor'!

    Everyone has something they are dealing with that is trying to drag them down. My 'something' at the moment is breast cancer. Someone else might be dealing with a job loss. Whatever it is, it's a threat to our way of life.

    I think if we have to call anyone a survivor, it should be humanity as a whole. (Pretty darn tough, that humanity! Something's always trying to drag it down!)

    Cheers to all,