Survivor: One Word, Countless Meanings

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Patricia is a Samfund alum and 2016 Sambassador. Today, on National Cancer Survivors Day, we recognize the multitude of experiences of survivors across the country. Patricia shares with us her experience and struggle with the term survivor as our newest guest blogger. We hope today to recognize and empower all those who have faced cancer, no matter what way they choose to identify themselves. Happy National Cancer Survivors Day!


The term “cancer” covers more than 100 types of the disease and an infinite number of distinct human experiences. Similarly, the term “survivor” has been used in many ways to identify those who have been recently diagnosed as well as those who have beaten the disease, whether in the short or long term.  In 2012, it was estimated by the American Cancer Society that there were 13.7 million survivors in the United States.

Despite the positive connotations we associate with the term “survivor,” I still find it difficult after 8 years in recovery to personally and entirely embrace it. There are many reasons why someone might not feel comfortable identifying as a survivor including not wishing to alienate those who struggle with the threat of recurrence, feeling as though their cancer experience was not severe enough to merit this title, or desiring a more private disease experience, among many others.

During my cancer treatment for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma I kept a blog about my experience called “Patty Has Cancer: I could have won the lottery but instead I got cancer.” In this space, I could share my experiences, both physical and emotional, with my family and friends. Below is an excerpt, written 6 months after my final surgery, which highlights my personal struggle identifying as a survivor.  

I was just speaking to a friend who mentioned the idea of changing this blog’s name to “Patty Had Cancer.” At first, this seemed like a good and natural idea, however, upon second thought I realized that I still do have cancer. I have the memories that compile the experience of knowing that your body is acting against you. I have memories of friends tenderly acting like nothing has changed. I remember my family always by my side. I have feelings of triumph and success. I still have cancer, not anymore in a physical sense and not only in memories, but now as a part of my character. And I’m not ashamed of it. I’ll just check it off the list of things to do in this life.

Identifying as a survivor can be empowering, but it can also be a reminder of the past and an uncertain future. Embracing the term “survivor” as part of your identity may force you to accept parts of yourself and the past that you may not be ready to deal with. It can expose a delicate part of ourselves that we may not be comfortable sharing.

In an effort to more fully embrace my own identity as a survivor, I have joined the 2016 Sambassador team. As part of this program I hope to meet other survivors who share similar experiences and to reach out to those who may be struggling with cancer. Additionally, I hope to help raise awareness of the many challenges that cancer brings including mental health concerns and financial struggles.

Survivorship identity takes many different forms, and individuals may choose to embrace it at different times during their journey. It’s important to be aware of the many reasons why a loved one may choose or not choose to identify as a “survivor,” and to support them in their choice as they move forward with their life.  

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