Survivor or Surviving? Deciphering the Words Used to Describe Cancer Patients

National Cancer Survivors Day is a day to be celebrated by all cancer patients, whether you were just diagnosed or you’re well into remission. But what if you’ve faced cancer more than once and had to “keep surviving” because it either came back (termed recurrent) or it didn’t respond to treatment (termed refractory)? Does the connotation of the word “survivor” change? 

I had always considered myself a survivor. I always had a positive, but stable, tumor marker that “would never get to ‘0’ because some patients don’t,” or “it would take a few years to see a drop.” I continued to have clear scans for the next 3 years, but a month after my 4th “cancerversary,” it became clear why I still had a positive marker. Not all of my cancer had responded to radiation and was now making itself known by being a bright, solid lymph node on the screen of my annual scan. Ultimately, I was treated and my tumor marker went down. Having to face this twice, however, somewhat changes the script in my mind of being a “survivor,” to simply “surviving,” as I await the next time this happens. 

As a cancer patient, I have always told other patients that half the battle is your mental attitude. As survivors, we’re not always positive, though, and that may be seen as “not being thankful.” “Didn’t you survive cancer,” some will say, “aren’t you thankful for that?” To them I would yes, but surviving is so much more than being in remission no matter how many times you face it. 

As a 2-time cancer patient who is simply surviving and taking it day by day, it’s more than what the treatment has done in helping lower that marker. It’s the negative sides of treatment that aren’t displayed across social media, the sadness that I feel after having a chronic and rare disease more than once, a disease that said “not so fast” to radiation, and the grief of the burden I feel I have placed twice on my friends and family.  

As this special day is celebrated, know that some patients don’t feel like they’re “survivors;” they’re simply trying to make it through the day, fighting emotionally, physically, and mentally to keep going. 

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  1. […] National Cancer Survivors Day is a day to be celebrated by all cancer patients. But what if you’ve faced cancer more than once and had to “keep surviving” because it either came back or it didn’t respond to treatment? Does the connotation of the word “survivor” change?  […]

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