Survivor, Hero, Battle: The Complicated Language of Cancer

The language used to talk about cancer often focuses on battle words – those who are cured “won” or “survived,” while those who die from cancer “lost” their “fight.” But is cancer really something to be won or lost?

Language of cancerYoung adults with cancer discussed these phrases and others during the recent Young Adult Cancer Conference hosted by the Young Adult Program at Dana-Farber. Labeling your cancer, and yourself as a patient or survivor, is often one of the most challenging aspects of the cancer experience, they said.

Loved ones and those without cancer often consider cancer patients “heroes,” but, as one young adult put it, “I don’t feel very heroic when I’m going through treatment; I just take my medications and do what I’m told to do.” Another young woman added: “The intention is, ‘you inspire me; it inspires me to watch you survive,’ but they don’t do a good job at expressing that.” Being labeled as a hero may put undue pressure on patients or make them feel like they aren’t allowed to look sick or express negative emotions about their experience.

For many patients, there are also conflicting feelings about the term “survivor.” Some patients feel it is acceptable to use the word within a group of your peers who are also experiencing cancer. But when people who are not patients use the term, it can create a sense of “survivor’s guilt” for those who have had friends die from their disease. The word can also create anxiety for those who were cured or have no evidence of disease and may feel they have to act a certain way.

“I feel like the term survivor is so confusing,” remarked one young adult. “Dying isn’t losing; cancer isn’t a game.”

These terms become even more complicated for those with cancers considered to be chronic, or for individuals whose cancer was cured or has gone into remission, but who still feel the emotional impact of the cancer experience.

What do you think of the terms usually associated with cancer? What words do you prefer to use for someone coping with cancer or who has finished treatment? Let us know in the comments section below.

24 thoughts on “Survivor, Hero, Battle: The Complicated Language of Cancer”

  1. This is a tough subject. I hear all the time that I’m someone’s hero because not only did I finish my cancer treatment and am still alive but I also started a business. It’s hard to hear the word hero. I didn’t do anything except live through it! It was tough and there were many times I wasn’t anywhere near happy. When it came back I was even more scared. But you tend to just grin and bear what people say and say thank you. I know people are just trying to be nice but what I really wanted was to be treated normal. And I wish I could be normal again. I deal with it that’s all I can do.

    • Dear Heidi —
      Thank you for sharing your story and your insight on this subject. Wishing you all the best.

  2. I have metastatic breast cancer. When I go to Breast Cancer walks I often wonder what to call myself. I’m not a “survivor” and yet I still feel extremely guilty. A very good friend of mine died from Leukemia after fighting myelodysplastic syndrome. She had two incredible daughters and a great husband. She was a mother, I am not. A little over a month later, my best friend’s mother dies from lung cancer. She was a mother and grandmother…again, I am not.
    So I ask again…..what do I call myself?

    • Dear Lisa —
      Thank you for sharing your story and your thoughts on this tough subject. Wishing you all the best.

  3. Thank you for the post.

    My cancer journey began in 1987, when I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Radiation brought remission later the same year. The cancer returned in less than two years. One and a half years later I was diagnosed with CLL (chronic lymphocyte leukemia). Remission from the CLL came five years later.

    I didn’t embrace the term “survivor” until a few years ago when: 1. I began to be diagnosed with late-effects caused directly and indirectly from the radiation therapy. Illnesses which includes heart and lung disease, kidney disease and chronic fatigue. 2. Seeking to better identify with others in the cancer community.

    Based on my experience I can appreciate someone not wanting to refer themselves as a cancer survivor, as well as someone who embraces the term.

  4. Dear Glen —
    Thank you so much for sharing your story and for connecting with us. Wishing you all the best!

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