What’s Wrong With A Survivor’s Badge Anyway?

I don’t like labels. I avoid them whenever I can. The survivor label is one that makes me uncomfortable for various reasons.

I asked my oncologist once, “When am I technically a survivor? Upon diagnosis? After my tumor is removed? After my bilateral? After finishing chemo? After two years have passed? Or the big five year bench mark?”

“As soon as you are diagnosed,” was his response.

Let me tell you, I did not feel anything like a survivor the day I was diagnosed. The word felt like a misnomer from day one.

According to the criteria for such things, I have been a survivor then for about thirteen months, I guess. The problem is, I don’t think of myself that way. I think more of myself as a person who has had a cancer diagnosis and is doing okay for now. I survived treatment, but cancer? Only time will tell on that one.

You’re being too sensitive we survivors are sometimes told. You don’t need to over analyze everything.

Even Dear Hubby recently asked, “Well what do you want to be called then?”

Survivor is just a word; in fact, a word intended to make me feel good. The word itself is almost like a special badge I am supposed to proudly ‘wear’ to tell the world I have survived cancer. It beats the alternative, right? I mean, I’m not dead yet.

It reminds me of my Girl Scout days when I completed all the necessary requirements for each particular badge I earned. Actually, I’m pretty sure there even was a badge for survival skills. I didn’t earn that one. Ironic, right?


The trouble here is, I will never know when all the requirements for cancer have been completed. I feel like I am supposed to accept a badge I did not earn.

It seems to me, in order to survive something, the thing or event you survived must be over. For good. You survive a plane crash. You survive a war. You survive a childhood illness. You survive a personal loss. You survive a natural disaster. It’s done. It’s over.

The trouble with cancer is you never know when it’s over, not with any certainty anyway. There are no guarantees.

Another reason I don’t like the survivor label very much is because when I look at the posters and pictures of women symbolizing survivorship, they often are depicted to look something like this.

Does this inspire you?

The women look beautiful, too beautiful. They don’t look real. I sure as heck don’t relate.

They look almost as if they came out the other side of cancer as a new and improved version of their former selves, which to me is total BS.

Also, what about all those people (like my mother) who didn’t and won’t survive cancer? Did they not work hard enough at their cancer survivorship skills? Did they not put in the right amount of time? Or the right amount of suffering?

As Dr. Gayle Sulik states in her book, Pink Ribbon Blues:

Rather than validating the full range of experience, the survivor model constructs a misery quotient. Did I suffer enough to be called a survivor? Did others suffer more than me? Am I worthy of the sisterhood? In addition to influencing women’s capacity to get social support such measures invalidate the whole of women’s experiences.

Sulik further states:

The exclusivity of the term survivor focuses attention squarely upon those who are living, essentially erasing those who are dying from the disease.

I could not agree more and I refuse to “erase” the experiences of those who have died or will die from this disease.

And what about the women (and men) who are presently living in the too often forgotten land of metastatic breast cancer?

These women (and men) do not have their heads in the sand. Believe me, they are very well aware of the statistics.

Are they survivors of a different sort? The temporary kind?

Where are their badges?

Where are their survivor posters?

I know survivor is only a word. I know we have to use the words available to us to describe stuff, even cancer. I also know this word does work for some people and I respect that. If the word works for some, that’s fine.

Yes, survivor is just a word. Just a label.

As for me, it doesn’t fit.

How do you feel about the survivor badge/label?

What labels have you been given and how do/did you feel about them?

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What's wrong with a survivor's badge? #cancer #survivor #breastcancer #labels
What’s wrong with a survivor’s badge anyway?

57 thoughts to “What’s Wrong With A Survivor’s Badge Anyway?”

  1. Thanks, Nancy, for sharing your thoughts.

    Cancer is the badge we never wanted to earn, that’s for sure.

    Survivorship ultimately becomes an individual choice. I didn’t take much solidarity from the images you posted above, for example, with the glamorous woman laughing her silly little bald head off.

    However, I did and still do enjoy the camaraderie and mission of Livestrong, which is for all people, worldwide, with any cancer. From the beginning I disliked the “segregation” of cancer into its respective body parts…go to this organization for breast cancer, here for the ovaries…etc. I far prefer — and still do – to think of the collective. That changed my orientation considerably. So did losing friends to cancer early on following treatment.

    I haven’t been the same, since. All these years later, I’m very proud to say I’m a cancer survivor. Damn proud.


    1. Jody, Thank you for sharing your thoughts on survivorship. I agree, there tends to be a cancer segregation tendancy. In the long run, I’m not sure this helps. I also totally agree that survivorship is a very individual thing. That’s my point. I don’t like expectations for “proper” cancer survivorship that too often seem to be implied.

  2. Nancy,

    Thank you for mentioning my posting. I really appreciate it.

    Your posting was spot on! This is certainly a badge we never set out to earn.

    Your posting is brilliant, and you tell the truth to the world, and the world is grateful.

    Gayle Sulik’s book is remarkable, isn’t it? I couldn’t put it down. You chose great quotes from it.

  3. Oh, by the way, that picture of that glam woman makes me sooooo mad! How dare society glamorize and thus trivialize breast cancer? That picture looks like the woman is actually enjoying her breast cancer.

    Well, we breast cancer folks haven’t enjoyed the very, very bumpy ride.

  4. Thanks for this post Nancy. I agree with Jody, that there’s an individual element of choice, but I don’t appreciate made up holidays like National Cancer Survivors Day ™ which is sponsored by our friendly big pharma corps. You can even buy medals and badges to hand out at these events, because of course there’s a merchandise catalogue.

    There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to how people deal with cancer at any stage, and this is where the concept of “survivor” gets cloudy for me. Aside from being a person with stage IV disease, these branded kinds of celebrations feel a bit vacuous to me. Obviously no one is ever the same again after a cancer diagnosis, but I think as a culture we need to be very careful about what we choose to celebrate. By celebrating survivorship are we implying that we have been successful in fighting the collective cancer battle? Doesn’t feel that way from my perch.

    1. Anna, Thanks for adding your thoughts to this discussion. Before it was pointed out to me, I didn’t know big pharma corps were sponsoring this particular day. Shouldn’t be surprised by that I guess, but I was. I agree some of the celebrating diminshes the experiences of stage IV people and implies success in the over all cancer battle. That to me is unacceptable. I also agree about the element of individual choice in all things cancer, one of the major points I was attempting to make.

  5. During and for a while after our treatment ends, most of us don’t feel like survivors. But after a couple of years out, you really do start feeling like a Survivor and while it’s not a perfect word or all encompassing of our experience, I just haven’t found a better word to describe what I’ve been through.

    During treatment I always called myself a breast cancer WARRIOR, now almost 5 years later I call myself a WARRIOR & SURVIVOR! I feel sort of like a war veteran, I battled something horrible, made some wonderful friends along the way, lost some of them to this horrible disease and somehow survived. It doesn’t mean that I won’t have to go into battle again or that we all survive.

    What intrigued me most about this was, why don’t we have a Girl Scout pink ribbon survivor’s badge? Imagine how much good we could do if we could teach the older girls about breast cancer, mammograms, etc. Maybe we can make more Survivors! I’m headed straight to the Girl Scouts website to make that suggestion.

    1. Alison, Thank you so much for reading my blog and taking time to comment on this topic. I really appreciate it. I still feel uncomfortable with the label, as I do with most of the others as well. As for the Girl Scout badge angle, perhaps encouraging girls more in the realm of healthy life style, science, research, ridding the environment of toxic/cancer causing agents would be the way to go. Just another pink ribbon badge, might not be that helpful. We have awareness. In my opinion, what we need is more concrete action devoted to discovering causes of cancer, prevention and cure. Seeing the Girl Scouts involved in this realm would be awesome. They could also play an active role in assisting those presently living with the disease. Great opportunity exists for earning the gold and silver awards with meaningful community action that doesn’t involve wearing a silly pink “booby bracelet” or t-shirt. Great comment, you kinda got me going! ha.

  6. Thanks for this Nancy. I bet if Komen can figure out a way to make it a revenue stream, they will.

    Wait — I think you get stick on patches at the race for the cure — one for every year.


  7. Thanks for reminding us that survivorship is one of the Girl Scout badges. I don’t think I ever got that badge either. Very interesting discussion. I don’t like to be called “over-sensitive” or “hypersensitive” because I don’t like a certain phrase. Also, I’ve been called “brave,” but when I think of that word, I think of someone who had a choice and did the right thing to become a hero. I’m not a heroine; I had no choice but to go through cancer treatment. I’m not brave. Yet when I told someone that, she burst into tears and insisted that I WAS brave. I resented having to face someone’s tears that were not about my cancer, but about my opinion as to how I react to cancer. There’s a difference. Thanks so much for keeping up the conversation.

    1. Jan, Thank you so much for commenting. Yes, brave is another one of those cancer words tossed around isn’t it? Sometimes I do think such words are more for the benefit of others. I know survivor is a way better word than victim, but still… I wish there was a better one.

    1. Caroline, Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts here on this topic. I know what you mean about the doctor appointments. I have two more this week myself. I think I like the phrase you chose, ‘merely a person living with/despite/beyond (whatever word there works for you) cancer.’ My point is that everybody’s experience is different. A one-size-fits-all label doesn’t work, for me anyway.

  8. I had my first real consideration of the word “survivor” when I received my Komen shirt for the race this year. I was barely halfway through chemo and not one ounce of me felt like a survivor so I didn’t wear the shirt. I still can’t use the phrase to describe myself and shudder when I am referred to as a survivor. I also prefer the word “warrior” – I am still in treatment and have a ways to go before I feel done with it. I am not sure if my feelings will change about being called a survivor when I am done. We will see..

    1. Mandi, I totally understand why you didn’t want to wear that t-shirt, as well as your hesitancy to refer to yourself as a survivor. Perhaps you will feel differently after finishing treatment, many people do. Be sure to keep me posted! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and good luck with the rest of your treatment.

  9. Hi Nancy,
    Interesting post! I also enjoyed reading others comments about the word survivor. When I was going through treatment, I struggled with being called a survivor. As time goes on, though, my view has changed a bit. I guess the word survivor/survivorship is more of a label to identify myself with others who have traveled the same journey as I. Granted I have many friends who are stage IV and I look at them and think what courgeous suvivors they are…every single day…they continue to survive treatment and tolerate the never ending side effects. When describing my journey, I don’t typically call myself a survivor, but think of myself more as a princess who had victory! (how’s that for labels?? :))

    ps. Want to go to CCWC next spring? I think you would love it and learn alot!

    1. Kim, Thanks so much for commenting. I agree, it’s great to read everyone’s thoughts on this. Time does change your view sometimes. A ‘princess who had victory,’ wow, that’s a good outlook. I’m glad you mentioned the stage IV friends of yours, how do they feel about the label? And a conference is something I am contemplating sometime… thanks!

  10. It’s just the wrong word to apply to cancer. Call me a survivor for other reasons — surviving heartache, grief, being broke, being unemployed — but don’t use that word for a disease that’s sneaky & unpredictable & over which none of us has much, if any, control. Maybe I endured — as in ‘put up with’ — cancer & cancer treatment. But I’m not sure I ‘survived’ them, as in outlasted them. The effects of treatment continue. I’m stuck with some of them for the rest of my life. And I will never be able to say that the cancer is gone forever. No one can say that, especially not with breast cancer.

    Thanks for the post, Nancy. xxoo

    1. Kathi, I’m so glad you shared your thoughts on this topic. I agree with your take on it, but yet there isn’t a good alternative word either, I get that too. I don’t feel comfortable with the label ‘survivor’ for the exact same reasons you mention. Plus, it seems to minimize somehow the experiences of those who didn’t and won’t ‘survive.’ I think it correlates with that whole positive attitude/survival thing somehow, which as you know, I don’t agree with either.

  11. This is something that has been rattling around in my head ever since I posted something on my own blog on cancer survivors day. I did it not out of any sense of triumphalism that I am a survivor when others aren’t, but to show those, such as yourself Nancy, how much I appreciate you and how important your continued support is. Who else understands what I mean when I talk about the guilt, loneliness, depression, anxiety and sadness of cancer but others who have walked this path?

    I admit that I was upset afterwards to read the backlash against this use of the term survivor – upset that I had been perhaps perceived as being guilty of a sense of triumphalism or insensitivity (those who know me know that this could not be further from the truth). I looked up the word survive in the dictionary and it means quite simply to live. I am still alive despite what cancer did to my body and soul; I am still alive despite how my heart broke and I wanted to stop living following my miscarriages and failed fertility attempts. And what has got me through is other survivors from the school of hard knocks.

    But back to the question that your husband posed – what do we say instead of survivor? I asked this question of the breast cancer charity I work for here in Ireland and we honestly couldn’t think of another word. Some of the women I asked didn’t like the word either, but couldn’t think of an alternative. Turns out this has been debated at european level at our org’s head office too and they couldn’t come up with another word either. There is research being done on the after effects of dealing with cancer and its treatment – the psycho-social and emotional fall-out and it is called survivorship research. That is my simple understanding of the term and always has been. Unfortunately the term has become imbued with a certain sense of triumphalism (there’s that word again) and (pink) banner wearing which I do understand may be offensive to some, but I also understand helps a lot of women make sense of their experience too.

    Gosh, I didn’t mean to go on so long here with my comment! I am also sensitive to words – I hate that phrase – lost his/her battle with cancer and cancer victim but for some reason survivor doesn’t set my teeth on edge in the same way. I understand what you mean about labels (try infertile for size!) but in terms of describing an experience common to so many of us..and a whole body of research, it is a word that will have to do for now..but I am open to any other suggestions…

    Whatever we call ourselves, I sure am glad to be part of this group of cancer women who shine a light in the darkness for me when the road ahead seems less bright and clear.

    1. Marie, Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments, Marie. First of all, no one would ever call you insensitive! I’m sorry you were upset about what you perceived as backlash to that post. I understood where you were coming from and was honored to find my name in the cloud. I don’t think you need to apologize or feel bad. This label does work for some; it’s all semantics I suppose. Also, as I mentioned in my post, it’s perhaps not the word itself so much I object to, it’s more the stereotypical expectations of what “proper” survivorship should look like. I believe everyone’s experience is so unique and there is not a “proper” way to do cancer OR survivorship. That’s where my uneasiness with the word seeps in. I also realize there is not really a better word, so we are kind of stuck with it. I am glad there are studies going on about dealing with cancer post treatment, which in itself, indicates the cancer experience does not just end. And of course, there is no real post treatment for stage IV, so what about them? Thanks again, Marie, for your insightful thoughts. They are always much appreciated.

  12. Labels, branding, badges it’s much of the same thing. I don’t want to be called anything except by my name. I have a disease when someone calls me Brave, a Survivor and the expression I detest the most Warrior I cringe. I know people mean well, but well meaning words at time just raise your cackles. This is where we are expected to smile pretty and suck it all in and be grateful. I am Alicia…. a mother, sister, daughter, auntie, friend. These are the only labels I want…
    Oh and as for the beautiful bald lady… Hey I wake up looking perfect like that every morning…. hahahahaha Obviously I’m dreaming lol

    1. Alli, Thanks so much for commenting. You raise a very valid point, why do we need to be called anything other than our name? Hadn’t really thought of it that way. We tend to label groups of any kind I guess for whatever reason. You sound like a person who knows what she wants and that’s a good thing. You also have a pretty good sense of humor!

  13. You are certainly not alone in your sentiment. I know many women who are uncomfortable with the unasked for title or badge. Nobody’s diagnosis or path is the same and comparisons will always prove useless.

    1. Jackie, Thanks so much for reading and taking time to comment, Jackie. Hope all is well with you! You are so right, everyone’s diagnosis and path is very different and needs to be respected and validated. That was really my main point here. Comparisons will always prove useless, lots of wisdom in that.

  14. Nancy,
    I am a mixture of many different labels Wife, mom, daughter, sister, aunt, niece, nurse and now cancer survivor. The term cancer survivor does not bother me (wouldn’t have chose it but…)People know I am a survivor and it has given me opportunity to encourage others with the same diagnosis. Who better to encourage than one who has gone through it themselves. Always enjoy your posts.

    1. Garden Lady, Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts about the survivor label. Glad to hear you are encouraging others and thanks for the compliment. Your feedback means a lot to me.

  15. Semantics! That was the word I was searching for in my befuddled head. Thanks for opening up such an interesting discussion Nancy.

    1. Marie, Your head befuddled? Never! And yes, it’s all about semantics I guess. The words we choose for anything are very important aren’t they? Thanks again for adding to the discussion.

  16. Before Christmas, I had lunch with Jody in The Woodlands and told her I thought we needed survivor badges like we had as Girl Scouts. Even under the “Survivorship” badge, there would be subtypes like “chemo,” “Arimidex,” etc, but let’s not wear them on a pink sash. I think this Komen business has turned me off of pink.


    1. Brenda, Yes, no pink sash, please. I think lots of people have been turned off by the over use of pink. Sad, for many reasons. Thanks for commenting on this topic, Brenda.

  17. Well Nancy, what an interesting discussion you have triggered here! I’ve just read this after hearing that a young woman I knew, who called herself a ‘survivor’, has just died of stage IV breast cancer. Sobering.
    I think it’s too triumphal to say we’re survivors, but I also know that many struggle with what to call themselves and use the term. Do we need to be called anything? I’m just ‘Sarah’. Thanks for the mention too Nancy.
    Best, Sarah

    1. Sarah, Thank you for commenting and I’m very sorry to hear about the young woman you knew passing away. Sobering. That’s a perfect word. Sometimes finding the right words is a bit of a struggle isn’t it? I like your idea of just calling us by our names. We like to put labels on groups of people with things in common though so… it’s hard sometimes. All labeling concerning people can get a bit tricky in my opinion.

  18. Nancy there is little for me to say here as it has been said.
    Congratulations on a sensitively written post on the subject of surviving cancer and the thought that it is possible for us to wear our badge proudly.
    I feel half inclined to have a stamp on my forehead that says I am left only partly functional as a result of cancer and treatment. I have had treatment and yet I still have cancer.
    Yes! I do live on, however, at times, it feels like an existence.
    Love this post my friend♥

    1. Chez, Thank you for taking time to leave a comment on this topic. I know what you mean about feeling inclined to have a stamp on the forehead. You are a perfect example of how surviving does not mean you have ended treatment or that your cancer is gone. That’s part of the problem with the label. You do WAY more than exist, Chez, I do know that much, even from half way around the world I can tell this is true about you. Don’t ever forget that!

  19. I have been on two sides of the survivor issue. My husband is technically considered to be a survivor of colon cancer because he died seven years after diagnosis and initial treatment. He has been dead for ten years and this still makes me angry about the term “survivor.”

    I had a total mastectomy on the right for breast cancer in January. I just finished my last chemotherapy treatment June 16. I start breast reconstruction in August. At this point I consider my self a survivor in the broad sense of the word simply for having gotten to today with most of my body, soul and mind intact. I definitely am not ready to expand the term to “cancer survivor.” I don’t know that I am ever going to be able to let down my guard and embrace that term.

    1. Kay, Thank you for reading and commenting. I am sorry about the loss of your husband and I can understand your disillusionment with the ‘survivor’ label. Congrats on finishing your chemo and good luck with your reconstruction, I hope you find my blog helpful a bit. I don’t think any of us really let our guard down again. That’s just reality for us now isn’t it? Let me know how things go for you. My best wishes.

  20. I know, a post/response from a guy! My wife was 32 when she was diagnosed with Stage 4 bc. She was 34 when she died 16 months later. Lisa was a nurse and she found the lump and did what she was supposed to do. The surgeon did not. The point of my reply is that five years later I struggle with the word survivor as well. I tell myself and our kids that surviving cancer has nothing to do with living or dying. It has to do with whether you let it kill your spirit. In that sense of the word, my amazingly brave and strong wife was a survivor despite taking her last breath in the Spring of 2006.

    As I prepare to take part in Baltimore’s RFTC, I find I have to keep reminding myself of my interpretation of survivor. At times, it seems that the traditional sense of the word is more prevalent and that the greatest emphasis is on those living, and that those who have passed on are no longer part of the group of sisters. I fully support and congratulate those women who have met the diagnosis head on and put breast cancer behind them as best that they can, and I hope that the courage of my wife is not cast aside simply because she is no longer living. She was “aware” and she did all that she was supposed to do; many rounds of chemo, bi-lateral radical, radiation galore, hormone therapy. But it spread like wild fire. Like your mother, she suffered bravely, but she is not here to participate in the survivors’ walk or ceremonies. But she is a survivor none the less and should be remembered as such.

    1. Bill, It is lovely to get a response from a guy. We need more male perspectives shared. Thank you. I’m so sorry about your wife. Your story illustrates poignantly one of the reasons many of us do have problems with that survivor label. It does somehow belittle the experience of those who did not survive by making it seem like they didn’t try hard enough. They don’t get to carry the victorious survivor mantel. Something just feels wrong about it. It sounds like your wife was an amazing woman and she represents so much of what is missing in this whole breast cancer culture discussion. Thank you so much for sharing about her. As you said, she too survives in a different way and should not be forgotten.

  21. A colleague just sent me the link to this post after we had a conversation about the concept of “cancer survivor.” I have been living with ovarian cancer for 13 years, and I do not feel comfortable with the label “survivor” for all the reasons you’ve listed here. Thank you for articulating my response to the term so well.

    1. Jean, Welcome. I’m so glad you read this post and that you related to it. There seem to be way too many cancer labels in my view. Somehow the survivor one just has never felt like the right “fit” for me. It’s good to know it troubles others as well. Thanks so much for commenting. Hope to “see you around” often! Just curious, as a person living with ovarian cancer, how do you feel during October?

    1. Shelli, Thank you for reading my survivor post, but that isn’t the one I was supposed to be linking to in my gift one. Hmm, guess I better check that out. Regardless, thank you for commenting on it. I’m glad you related.

  22. How about – I’m a former cancer patient. Yeah, it’s not glamorous, it doesn’t have any great meaning attached to it other than factual. I do not like labels either but I do understand the desire to say sometimes… We survived. Other times, it feels meaningless and melodramatic. Sometimes you just want to be another person who had cancer and who is hoping it won’t come back again. Period. I think the bottom line is everyone has their own take on this cancer thing and that your emotions, thoughts and views on it can change from day to day and year to year.

    1. Lauren, It is important to acknowledge that we have survived and are still standing, but there seem to be so many labels attached to cancer. Some of them are “stickier” than others. You’re so right about that bottom line and yes, our thoughts, emotions and viewpoints are constantly evolving. Cancer or no cancer, this is true. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  23. I consider myself as a veteran – I am a soldier in the battle called breast cancer. I have the battle scars to prove it! And, PTS follows my footsteps each and every day. I am a veteran!!

    1. Peggy, Thanks for reading. Personally, I don’t identify with the war metaphors, but I know they work for some people. I glad they do for you.

  24. This is a cancer blog… I looked up ‘Survivor’ as it pertains to me. Here is where I was taken.
    I’ve been called a survivor many times. What that means to me is that I’ve had difficult situations. Why celebrate that? Why have the discussion that your past was hard? Everyone who has made it to adulthood has survived their childhood. How is it that one could survive their childhood and one other would not survive their childhood, but still be alive and not be a survivor?
    I don’t mean to offend anyone here. I live with a chronic incurable sometimes unbearable disease. I sometimes wish 10 years ago that I had a disease that at least would kill me. So that I wouldn’t have to keep living with it. One thing I noticed with cancer is you either beat it or you die. There isn’t an accepted amount of “life with cancer”. Life gives everyone difficulties. One over the over, which is better, which is worse?

  25. I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer stage 3 a little over a year ago followed by successful surgery and treatment (another term I am uncomfortable with…sounds so vague, whitewashed and creepy to me). It’s way too soon for me to feel like a survivor, more like a “lost survivor” -Haha. Anyway, I am trying to move forward as best as I can. I do wish there would be more of an emphasis on ovarian cancer research. I was encouraged to hear on the news this past week about a new treatment geared toward all cancers, coming out of Israel. Thank you for your blog, you have been a comforting companion over these past few months.

  26. Sigh. I have a really hard time with the word Survivor. After my sensitive daughter heard that I was diagnosed with Stage 4, she signed us up for a walk. And insisted that I wear the Survivor shirt. I felt so hypocritical. Am I a survivor? A Thriver, for sure because those looking at me do not (yet) see a sick person. But if breast cancer has returned (and I really think it never left), then how can I be a survivor? I do believe that I can – and am – thriving with it. There’s a difference!

    1. Linda, May you keep on thriving! Btw, that is a good distinction, hadn’t really thought about it quite like that. Thank you.

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