Not a Survivor but a Thriver

 

When the surgeon first confirmed I had cancer, he told me that it wouldn’t shorten my life; actually, he tried to reassure me with that comment on two or three other occasions. I was surprised that he said that, but in spite of all the advances in breast cancer treatment, I guess the first thing a woman might think is, “Am I going to die”? My reaction was, “This is so darned inconvenient.” Maybe that was a thought of denial on my part, but I still feel the same way.

It is inconvenient.

But I mainly wanted to address a phrase that is commonly used to discuss the condition of a person who comes through cancer: Cancer Survivor. Please know that if you know anyone who describes herself that way, I mean no disrespect. We can all choose to see and describe ourselves in multiple ways, but that’s not a term I would use.

I’ve thought about the use of Cancer Survivor quite a bit, and at first, I didn’t know why it bothered me. I didn’t hate the term, but I just couldn’t identify with it. I guess you could say I haven’t survived it yet, but from all indications, I will.

Some folks probably call themselves a survivor to let people know that you can survive cancer. I just think that conversation can be pursued without the label.

In these modern times where so much progress has been made in treatment, the word survivor seems pretty extreme. Clearly, early detection made a big difference in my prognosis. And I don’t know if I will have to go through radiation and chemo (those results will be reported in a couple of weeks), and I may feel that I really did survive something difficult if I have to go through those treatments. But the cancer itself will be dealt with. And I hope I won’t be one of those people who obsess about whether it will come back or that the second breast will be affected (and the odds are against both but you never know).

Everyone has difficult stuff happen in their lives, and I have been amazingly blessed with very good health. And I know that there are people who do feel as if life is something they survive.

But I’ve never felt that way.

I also don’t want people to get the impression that Cancer Survivor is a primary way that I define myself. Instead, I am a wife, a writer, a teacher, and a good friend (I hope!)

Instead, life is about thriving: Learning. Growing. Helping. Laughing. Celebrating.

I have so many things I love to do. There are things I do that I would like to think make a difference. I feel helpful. I feel useful. Here I am, sharing my thoughts the day after my surgery! Life can tough, but it is rarely a burden. I have too much love around to uplift and inspire me.

And I feel blessed.

*Hat tip to Caryn who helped me flesh out this idea.

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  1. Vance Richards Member
    Vance Richards
    @VanceRichards

    Since you are posting this I assume everything went well with the surgery. Glad to hear that.

    Susan Quinn: I also don’t want people to get the impression that Cancer Survivor is a primary way that I define myself. Instead, I am a wife, a writer, a teacher and a good friend (I hope!)

    My wife had stage-two breast cancer when she was 40. That was 11 years ago (but don’t do the math because men aren’t supposed to tell a lady’s age). Although completely cancer-free she does not like the “Cancer Survivor” label either. As she sees it, her life is not going to be defined by a disease.

    • #1
  2. Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. Coolidge
    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr.
    @BartholomewXerxesOgilvieJr

    Technically I am a “cancer survivor,” but I have never felt justified in using that label for myself, even if I were inclined to do so. That’s partly because “cancer” is such a broad category, covering so many very different experiences. My experience was, as you say, inconvenient (and expensive), but it was a breeze compared to what some people go through. Outpatient surgery and some follow-up treatment, but no chemo, no misery, no long-term consequences except having to take a pill every morning for the rest of my life. And at no point was I seriously worried about the outcome.

    But there’s another reason. For the months I was being treated, yeah, the diagnosis was the most important thing in my life. But then it was over. It’s an experience I had once: I had a medical condition, I went to a doctor, they took care of it, and I got better. It’s not part of my life anymore, and it dosn’t define me.

    @susanquinn, I’m sorry you’re having this stressful experience. But you will be fine, and before you know it, entire days will go by when you don’t think about it at all.

    • #2
  3. Mim526 Member
    Mim526
    @Mim526

    To many who’ve experienced it and lived to tell the tale, cancer refines more than defines you. Be well, my friend, and #thrive! You know my prayers are with you and Jerry.

    • #3
  4. EHerring Coolidge
    EHerring
    @EHerring

    Thanks to your sharing your story, I was jarred back to the reality that there are things more deadly than Covid that I should worry about. I quit trying to wait out Covid to get an appointment on base so I made my appointment in the civilian system. When I realized how overdue I was, it shocked me how long I have put things aside to wait for the end of this virus. I am just waiting for the results now, but that might be a while. They have to request my previous images from the Ft Jackson clinic to compare them. Had you not jarred me back to reality, I would have procrastinated longer. Thank you for keeping your friends updated on your status.

    • #4
  5. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Vance Richards (View Comment):
    lthough completely cancer-free she does not like the “Cancer Survivor” label either.

    We are obviously on the same page!

    • #5
  6. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. (View Comment):
    @susanquinn, I’m sorry you’re having this stressful experience. But you will be fine, and before you know it, entire days will go by when you don’t think about it at all.

    Can’t wait to not think about it! I thought about it a lot, the closer I got to surgery. And I forgot I will need to take a pill for the rest of my life. I’ll just take it with my multi-vitamin. Thanks for the encouraging words, BXO!

    • #6
  7. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Mim526 (View Comment):

    To many who’ve experienced it and lived to tell the tale, cancer refines more than defines you. Be well, my friend, and #thrive! You know my prayers are with you.

    That is a wonderful way to put it, @mim526! I love that. Yes, and your prayers have meant a lot!

    • #7
  8. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    EHerring (View Comment):
    Had you not jarred me back to reality, I would have procrastinated longer.

    Thanks, @eherring. I’ve had a few people mention that they told women friends about me and that inspired them to schedule their mammos. I was so glad to hear that!

    • #8
  9. Gary Robbins Reagan
    Gary Robbins
    @GaryRobbins

    I like to say that I have had two dances with cancer. I had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2013, and then Colon Cancer in 2019. Cancer has given me a greater appreciation for life. Every day is a gift. Thank you for an outstanding post.

    I use the phrase “Cancer Survivor” only when it will help a client with cancer identify with me. Otherwise, it is too melodramatic. I had a 90% chance of five year survival with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and after surgery taking out a foot of my large intestine, I am totally cancer free and passed my most recent colonoscopy. So, relatively, I have had a less serious form of cancer, and to call myself a “Cancer Survivor” is almost a form of stolen valor.

    • #9
  10. EHerring Coolidge
    EHerring
    @EHerring

    Gary Robbins (View Comment):

    I like to say that I have had two dances with cancer. I had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2013, and then Colon Cancer in 2019. Cancer has given me a greater appreciation for life. Every day is a gift. Thank you for an outstanding post.

    I use the phrase “Cancer Survivor” only when it will help a client with cancer identify with me. Otherwise, it is too melodramatic. I had a 90% chance of five year survival with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and after surgery taking out a foot of my large intestine, I am totally cancer free and passed my most recent colonoscopy. So, relatively, I have had a less serious form of cancer, and to call myself a “Cancer Survivor” is almost a form of stolen valor.

    I lost my cousin a year ago to NonHodgkins Lymphoma. He was only a year older. We did Gamecock sports together. You have had more than your share of roadblocks. Glad you fought and won.

    • #10
  11. Rodin Member
    Rodin
    @Rodin

    Thought provoking post. Nobody actually survives life — we all die. But we are built-in with a drive to live, or at least a resistance to death. As we age out of our reproductive years Mother Nature seems to have inserted a “sell by” date on all of us. People become more “philosophical” about death, which is really just a way us acknowledging that there is a lot less sand in to the top of the hourglass than in the bottom. Possibly hormonal changes make us more accepting of the inevitable. The reluctance to leave at that point is a function of the extent and strength of familial and social networks, how curious we remain about what is around the corner, and our relative physical comforts. 

    • #11
  12. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Rodin (View Comment):
    The reluctance to leave at that point is a function of the extent and strength of familial and social networks, how curious we remain about what is around the corner, and our relative physical comforts. 

    I would add, @rodin, that we feel we have more to do. Good to see you, and great comment.

    • #12
  13. Jim Chase Member
    Jim Chase
    @JimChase

    Glad to see you jump back in so soon with the proverbial pen to promote an intriguing introspection! I continue to pray for a speedy recovery and wise diagnosis and plan, whatever may come next in the process!

    I too feel weird about the term “survivor”, albeit in a different context. I have associates who to this day, when the topic of stormy weather comes up, consider me a “tornado-survivor”. It’s a pretty neat trick actually – the best way to survive a tornado that destroys your house is not to be there when it happens. Things happen in life, good and bad. Yeah, sometimes the bad is really bad, and I would never diminish the suffering one must walk through during such trials. And yes, there is validity to the sense of survival or victory (of sorts) when one arrives on the other side of the trial. For me personally, though, I don’t think I could bring myself to trade on the term “survivor” like some sort of badge I have earned. I’d rather embrace the joy of life, rather than pride of perseverance. 

    But for others, I would heartily recognize the psychological power in the identification, if for no other reason than to serve the purpose of hope that because they have seen suffering, they remember that it is possible to persevere through whatever comes next.

    Bottom line: I guess I’m sort of wishy-washy. It’s not for me, but I won’t begrudge it in others (when it’s sincere and not used as a look-at-me kind of thing).

    • #13
  14. Chuck Thatcher
    Chuck
    @Chuckles

    Gary Robbins (View Comment):

    I like to say that I have had two dances with cancer. I had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2013, and then Colon Cancer in 2019. Cancer has given me a greater appreciation for life. Every day is a gift. Thank you for an outstanding post.

    I use the phrase “Cancer Survivor” only when it will help a client with cancer identify with me. Otherwise, it is too melodramatic. I had a 90% chance of five year survival with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and after surgery taking out a foot of my large intestine, I am totally cancer free and passed my most recent colonoscopy. So, relatively, I have had a less serious form of cancer, and to call myself a “Cancer Survivor” is almost a form of stolen valor.

    Dances With Wolves

    • #14
  15. Chuck Thatcher
    Chuck
    @Chuckles

    Rodin (View Comment):

    Thought provoking post. Nobody actually survives life — we all die. But we are built-in with a drive to live, or at least a resistance to death. As we age out of our reproductive years Mother Nature seems to have inserted a “sell by” date on all of us. People become more “philosophical” about death, which is really just a way us acknowledging that there is a lot less sand in to the top of the hourglass than in the bottom. Possibly hormonal changes make us more accepting of the inevitable. The reluctance to leave at that point is a function of the extent and strength of familial and social networks, how curious we remain about what is around the corner, and our relative physical comforts.

    I was thinking on posting something about being an “old age survivor” but – no.

    • #15
  16. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Jim Chase (View Comment):

    Glad to see you jump back in so soon with the proverbial pen to promote an intriguing introspection! I continue to pray for a speedy recovery and wise diagnosis and plan, whatever may come next in the process!

    I too feel weird about the term “survivor”, albeit in a different context. I have associates who to this day, when the topic of stormy weather comes up, consider me a “tornado-survivor”. It’s a pretty neat trick actually – the best way to survive a tornado that destroys your house is not to be there when it happens. Things happen in life, good and bad. Yeah, sometimes the bad is really bad, and I would never diminish the suffering one must walk through during such trials. And yes, there is validity to the sense of survival or victory (of sorts) when one arrives on the other side of the trial. For me personally, though, I don’t think I could bring myself to trade on the term “survivor” like some sort of badge I have earned. I’d rather embrace the joy of life, rather than pride of perseverance.

    But for others, I would heartily recognize the psychological power in the identification, if for no other reason than to serve the purpose of hope that because they have seen suffering, they remember that it is possible to persevere through whatever comes next.

    Bottom line: I guess I’m sort of wishy-washy. It’s not for me, but I won’t begrudge it in others (when it’s sincere and not used as a look-at-me kind of thing).

    Beautifully said, Jim. Thanks.

    • #16
  17. Mim526 Member
    Mim526
    @Mim526

    Sometimes when life throws everything and the kitchen sink over and over again, when it seems all is taken from you (think Job), a person can get sort of shell shocked so that it means something to be able just to say, “I’m still here.” I’ve met a few people like that and their depth of spirit, once recovered, is something to behold.

    Deep lessons can be learned from deep suffering. Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning comes to mind.

    • #17
  18. JustmeinAZ Member
    JustmeinAZ
    @JustmeinAZ

    Susan, I couldn’t agree more! Even before my brush with breast cancer in 2019-20 (spans discovery, treatment, recovery) I used to get so annoyed with women (men don’t seem to do it) who introduce themselves as a 5-10-15 year cancer survivor as if that defined their lives. Really? Is there nothing more to you? I didn’t even tell my closest family, except for my husband, until I really had to. I am not going to mark any of the anniversaries or even think about it much when I’m completely over lingering side effects. When we see friends they don’t even ask about it any more, which is the way I want it.

    Yeah, my first thought, for about 10 seconds, was am I going to die. But that passed quickly. And I think I’ve mentioned before that during my first visit with my oncologist he said “we go for a cure”.

    So glad to hear you doing well and thinking “right”!

    • #18
  19. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Vance Richards (View Comment):
    My wife had stage-two breast cancer when she was 40. That was 11 years ago (but don’t do the math because men aren’t supposed to tell a lady’s age). Although completely cancer-free she does not like the “Cancer Survivor” label either. As she sees it, her life is not going to be defined by a disease.

    That was my opinion. I had prostate cancer surgery 18 years ago, in late January 2002. There was an annual event for cancer survivors for a few years in the mid 2000s. I forget what it was called, but when it was held at my workplace I declined to take part. I didn’t want my life to be defined by a disease, either. 

    • #19
  20. Southern Pessimist Member
    Southern Pessimist
    @SouthernPessimist

    Two phrases, each six words long, will linger with me. “Not a survivor but a thriver.” “Cancer refines more than defines you.”

    Very wise words.

     

    • #20
  21. Quinnie Member
    Quinnie
    @Quinnie

    I have a sister who went through a similar situation. She had the same mental response as you. She is fine now. Just as you will be. You are to0 ornery to have serious health issues. 

     

    • #21
  22. KentForrester Moderator
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Good luck, Susan. I’ll be thinking about you. 

    Marie had breast cancer about 15 years ago. She had the cancer surgically removed and then had radiation. She only thinks about it now, she tells me, when she goes in for her yearly breast exam. 

    I had prostate cancer about 13 years ago. Radiation alone took care of it. Did you know that 80% of men over 80 have cancer cells in their prostate? However, it’s such a slow growing cancer that only 1 in 39 men die of the disease. Other things kill them before the prostate cancer gets them. 

    Medical science now has a wide variety of ways to deal with cancers, and as a result it’s not as fear producing as it once was. Thank God for modern medicine. 

    My son died of leukemia when he was seven. That was about 50 years ago. Today there are medical procedures that would have cured him. 

    • #22
  23. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Susan Quinn: Please know that if you know anyone who describes herself that way, I mean no disrespect.

    My mother had lymphoma in her late 40s. She did chemo for a couple of years, then finally told the docs, “If you can’t tell me when I can stop the chemo, I’m stopping it now.”

    The lymphoma never came back, her hair grew back, yet she never called herself a cancer survivor. She would say, “I had lymphoma, but the chemo made it go away.”

    • #23
  24. Online Park Member
    Online Park
    @OnlinePark

    I also had breast cancer. The rare, aggressive type (metaplastic). I didn’t expect to survive as long as I have but I would never call myself a survivor. To me it is a passive term like victim. It also leads to problems with terminology for those who have recurrence. I like your post.

    • #24
  25. EHerring Coolidge
    EHerring
    @EHerring

    It is interesting to see the way each person creates the personal strength to face cancer and then celebrate victory. There is no right or wrong way. Each chooses what works for himself/herself. 

    • #25
  26. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    I certainly don’t begrudge anyone using the identity of cancer survivor. For some the struggle goes on for years and come close to death. Look at Rush. If Rush Limbaugh pulls through, then he would have earned the moniker. Poor Rush. Praying for him. 

    • #26
  27. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    Online Park (View Comment):

    I also had breast cancer. The rare, aggressive type (metaplastic). I didn’t expect to survive as long as I have but I would never call myself a survivor. To me it is a passive term like victim. It also leads to problems with terminology for those who have recurrence. I like your post.

    Why is the term passive? You fought it off. You beat the challenge. That’s not passive. 

    • #27
  28. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Quinnie (View Comment):

    I have a sister who went through a similar situation. She had the same mental response as you. She is fine now. Just as you will be. You are to0 ornery to have serious health issues.

     

    You know me!

    • #28
  29. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    So glad to hear that you are well. :-) 

    • #29
  30. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Today, Sunday, I’m doing pretty well. An occasional Tylenol and there is very little pain, as long as I behave myself! It drives me nuts when I catch myself trying to do things I shouldn’t, and Jerry reminds me, too. But I think I’m progressing well. Today, I suddenly realized (this will sound crazy) that the surgeon saved my life. There’s much to be grateful for. Thanks, all.

    • #30