Cancer Patients Are Not Like Soup Cans

When I learned to read waaaay back in first grade during the Dick, Jane and Spot era, my class was neatly divided into three reading groups according to our ability, or that’s what the intention was anyway. Each group came up with some kind of cute name to call itself, like Squirrels, or Bluebirds or Bears.

It didn’t really matter what we called ourselves though because everyone knew what the names really meant. Everyone knew they really meant top, middle and bottom. We all knew exactly what was being done.

We were being labeled.

I always tried to avoid labeling children in my classroom because as they say, children often live up to those labels or worse yet, never escape from them once they’ve been branded with one. Once labeled a troublemaker, too often always labeled a troublemaker.

Maybe this labeling is okay if you are labeled as “gifted” or as a “high achiever” (I wouldn’t know I never had those labels), but if you are average or below, have a learning challenge of any kind or are one of “those troublemakers,” it’s not so great to be given a label you can never quite shake free of.

Fast forward into cancer life and I find myself inundated with cancer labels.

Of course the big one is survivor.

This label poses a few problems for me right off the bat. First of all, when do I get to call myself a survivor? Is it the day of my diagnosis? Is it the day they cut out my tumor? Or is it the day I finish initial cancer treatment?

Do I call myself a survivor for the rest of my life, until I’m literally no longer surviving anything?

But if you survive something, shouldn’t the thing you survived be over for good?

With cancer this is never a certainty.

This uncertainty is sometimes also accompanied by a fair amount of survivor’s guilt.

Why do I get to be a survivor while so many others do not?

And what about those living with metastatic cancer?

Are they “merely” temporary survivors?

Then there is that visually descriptive fighter label that seems to be almost automatically handed out to each cancer patient as if we are all entering some kind of “cancer ring” where we must prove ourselves, duke it out and show our tough side, because society says we should put up a “tough fight” if we want to win this battle.

You can keep the pink fighter's gloves. Don't want 'em.
No pink gloves for me.

I wish it were that simple.

And battle, there’s another word that gets loosely tossed around out there in Cancer Land.

While it’s true, I do have more than a few cancer scars that make me look like I have indeed been in a battle of some sort, for some reason, I don’t like this comparison either.

What is it with our cancer/war metaphor obsession anyway?

Many times battle is also accompanied by another pair of labels that generally would be quite complimentary, courageous and brave.

When I read obituaries (and yes sometimes I do, don’t ask me why), the first thing I look for after the name and age of the deceased is the cause of death. When the cause is cancer, I can’t begin to count the number of times it goes on to say so and so died after a long and courageous battle with cancer.

I know this is meant to be a compliment to the deceased, but I don’t like the “final succumbing” this seems to imply. Cancer patients don’t “give up.”  Treatment stops working. Patients run out of options. They die because of this, not because they couldn’t fight the battle long enough or hard enough.

They didn’t die because they were poor “soldiers.”

And cancer patients are not more or less brave or courageous than anyone else. Each deals with his/her cancer situation in whatever way he/she can muster.

Do these metaphors and labels somehow diminish a person’s disease experience and death?

I think they do.

Maybe we should just come out and say the person died as a result of cancer and stop trying to “dance around” the deadliness of this disease.

I don’t know why cancer labels bother me so much. Perhaps they are too confining and restrictive. You can almost feel a label’s “heaviness” once it’s been slapped on. Perhaps they give the wrong impression. Perhaps they are too hard to live up to.

Or Perhaps they are just too cumbersome and unnecessary.

Regardless of the reason, I will continue to avoid labels. I will avoid them for myself and try to avoid labeling others as well.

I love what Catherine (who blogs at Bumpy Boobs) said recently in a comment she left on Beth’s recent great post at Calling the Shots entitled, The Burden of Survivorship. Catherine said this:

Labels are labels, but they are not obligations.

I’m going with Catherine’s advice. If labels work for you, fine. But as for me…

Thanks, but no thanks.

After all, cancer patients are not like soup cans.

How do you feel about labels?

Which cancer label are you most bothered by? (If any)

Have you ever been wrongly labeled?

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Labels Work Best on Soup Cans #cancer #breastcancer #cancerlanguage

40 thoughts to “Cancer Patients Are Not Like Soup Cans”

  1. “Brave” makes me uncomfortable. I’m not brave, I’m doing what I have to do to stay alive. I’ll take strong – I like that image. But not brave because I don’t feel very brave….I’m usually terrified!

    1. Maureen, I didn’t cover “brave” did I? That one makes me uncomfortable too because I know I’m not! Thanks for commenting.

  2. Very sensible post- I like it. I started using “survivor” myself
    Years ago. Then, there were not as many types to deal with and such. I developed chronic lymphedema in my legs after a massive cervical cancer operation. When asked what “happened”, I had heard the word survivor so much (in media, tv etc) that it just automatically popped out as my answer! “I’m a cancer survivor” it just seemed easier to say and was a much shorter answer. Thinking back- I wanted to exit stage left! No part of meeting up with ignorant (healthy) people had EVER been comfortable for me.

    I’m glad we’re having this discussion. Now that I look back, I wish I had just said “I had cancer”, or “It was because of cancer” or something like that. That would have left me still just being “Rann”- nothing else.

    In case you don’t know me, my take on this has been posted on my site:

    Good post, thanks! Xo

    1. Rann, Thanks so much for sharing your insights. I really appreciate it. I call myself a survivor too pretty often actually because I can never really come up with anything a whole lot better. Still, I don’t like the label and avoid using it whenever possible.

  3. Brava!!

    I WISH I had the ability to break things down so eloquently and so easily understandable. This is pitch perfect, Nancy and it echoes my own feelings. I believe we do tend to “live up to” our labels….(or use them as self fulfilling prophesies).

    THIS tells the whole story… We have no control. And you captured that perfectly with these words:

    “Cancer patients don’t “give up.” Treatment stops working. Patients run out of options. They die because of this, not because they couldn’t fight the battle long enough or hard enough”

    Sidebar: (Some like to visualize themselves as warriors and I select that word **only** because of my friend who died in January. I was reading through our text conversations which I still can not delete from my phone. In one conversation (before she was metastatic), SHE was comforting me through a rather lousy personal situation. I was oddly comforted to read her words when she told me I was a warrior. Since I saw that “conversation” my tongue is crippled to express any prior negative feelings I may have held toward that word. I feel like I’m dismissing a dead friend who liked the terminology…. although, I will say, I do wonder how she felt in those last days when I KNOW she was filled with such terror and fear….. )

    Sorry bout that little detour…. Again, BRILLIANT, my friend.



    1. Ann Marie, I’m so sorry about your friend. I understand why you have those saved conversations. I have a few of those myself. There’s nothing wrong with the warrior label, or any of them really. They just don’t sit well with me personally for the reasons I wrote about. Maybe it all goes back to my teaching days. I saw so many kids labeled and once the label were “attached” they seemed to stick. Thanks for you kind words about my post and for sharing your thoughts.

  4. Since my last two PET scans have shown no “living” cancer, only “dead” masses I have heard so many times “congratulations! you beat it!” or “you survived”. I will never feel like I have “beat it” ever. That seems to pompous to me, like tempting fate. I haven’t beaten it because I live with the gnawing fear that it will come back every day. People have called me “strong” and “brave” but I have only done what I needed to do, what I think anyone would have done, many of those times doing those things because I was told by my oncologist that it was my only choice. How is that being strong or brave? I was scared shitless and still am. My next scan is in three days and the only thing I can think about is if the pain in my side is the cancer growing again because I didn’t do enough to keep it dead. Sometimes I use the survivor term, because in my world/mind every single one of us is a survivor, cancer or no cancer. It seems that my entire life, even before cancer, I was surviving with periods of thriving tossed in here and there. To me the term “survivor” means getting through tough times one day at a time. To me it doesn’t mean that the game is all over and you won. No one wins in the game of life. Eventually we all die, myself included, but at this moment in time I am surviving and trying not to think about why my liver hurts or what the scan will say. Your post is spot on Nancy! Labeling isn’t good in my opinion, not even on a soup can because as we all know those labels often lie to us and mislead us.

    1. Laura, The survivor term means different things to different people I guess. I love your point about the labels on soup cans. We know there are some things in the soup and in the cans that aren’t so great don’t we? Even those labels don’t tell the true story. You got me on that one! Good luck with your scan and please keep me posted on things. I’ll be thinking of you. Thanks so much for commenting.

  5. Wonderfully stated, Nancy. The word that makes me most uncomfortable is ‘hero’. One of my colleagues refers to me now (almost two years post diagnosis) as her hero.
    I am not heroic. I am just trying to stay alive. No mets as yet, thank the Lord. We just do what we have to do.

    1. Meg, I hear you. That’s the thing, Meg, we just do what we have to do and let the chips fall. So much sheer luck involved… Thank you for adding to this discussion.

  6. Like you, I’m conflicted about many of the labels, but “survivor” isn’t one of them. I’ve survived a crazy mother and having to raise myself, the death of my first husband, my kidnapping, breast cancer and the death of James.

    To be able to pick yourself up after a horrific, life-changing thing and move forward is a huge achievement. You survived a terrible time in your life and didn’t let it take you down. We all know of people who didn’t have help from friends, family, counseling, medical attention, backbone and grit, who take refuge in drugs and alcohol or stay rooted in fear the rest of their lives. They’re not survivors. Or what about people who win a gazillion dollars in the biggest lottery in the country, but it winds up destroying them and their family? They’re not survivors. Other families that are able to cope and adapt to that kind of sudden wealth are survivors.

    To me, being a “survivor” is the way we deal with what happens to us. I’ll never forget breast cancer, my involuntary time in the jungle or losing James, but I’ve survived–mentally and emotionally–each one of these terrible things. I’m a survivor!


    1. Brenda, I know you have endured a lot of hardship in your life. You are a survivor if ever there was one. I guess I’m differentiating here and referring to survivor in the cancer context. I do call myself a survivor too, though I hesitate every single time I do it. I keep thinking about the recent post which referred to “erasing” those who don’t survive. I should find that. That’s part of why the term doesn’t sit well with me. I understand that others are completely comfortable with it. Thanks for sharing, Brenda.

  7. I’ve always thought being brave meant acting, going forward, when frightened. That is, to be brave necessarily means you are also afraid.
    I don’t like any of the labels either, even being called brave.

    1. Ellana, I agree with you. Brave and fear go hand in hand don’t they? Well, you know how I feel about the labels. I’m with you. Thank you for sharing your opinion. I appreciate it very much.

  8. I love this blog post for a variety of reasons.
    First, it is giving permission for a community of people to say “I don’t like the language of cancer”.
    Second, it is creating the space and a dialogue for those with similar experiences to begin to coalesce, shift, and create new meanings, language, and metaphors surrounding cancer.
    Nancy, you bring up many salient points and I appreciate your candidness to speak about your experiences.
    Best 🙂

    1. Stephanie, Thank you so much for your insights. Dialogue is a good thing isn’t it? I love hearing all the different perspectives on this labeling thing too. The main point once again is that each of us and each of our cancer experiences is uniquely our own. Thank you for your kind comment. I appreciate it.

  9. I consider myself a cancer fighter, warrior, conqueror and survivor. I fought, I battled, I conquered and I survived.

    And I have yet to meet a cancer patient who isn’t brave, courageous and strong in my eyes. While I know we only do what we are forced to do, what we think anyone would do, it still takes bravery and courage to face the unknown, to face our fears and to not give up – even when we feel we have no other choice.

    I don’t feel that labeling myself as a survivor takes away from those who die as a result of cancer. But I only say that because I KNOW dying isn’t a result of giving up or not trying hard enough. My grandmother died way too young of colon cancer and it wasn’t because she gave up or wasn’t a fighter or a warrior. To watch her pass and finally be free of the pain associated with her advanced cancer meant winning her battle in my eyes.

    Each of our journeys with cancer are individual so terms like “battle” can mean quite different things to many of us. For example, I consider myself to have won my battle against breast cancer on the day I delivered a healthy baby girl despite undergoing chemo while pregnant – rather than on the day that I was told I was cancer-free.

    I value that your post sheds insight into the often vague terminology in cancer land. And yes, I agree that we shouldn’t use these metaphors to dance around or paint a pretty picture of this disease. But at the same time, I am not opposed to calling myself a survivor, even if I am just one of the lucky ones that lived.

    1. Roxanne, Thank you very much for sharing your perspective on this. I’m sorry about your grandmother. I realize many are completely fine with the various labels and metaphors, but many also are not. We all see things a bit differently and this is a good thing. Too often I do think some labels and metaphors “dance around” and as you said, paint a pretty picture of a deadly disease. I cringe when I see the pink boxing gloves and fighter mentality portrayed as the way to “beat” breast cancer for example. This is another important discussion to have. Thanks for being part of it.

  10. Well put! I agree! I also don’t like the label BRAVE. It is so much to live up to, so many expectations. What if one day i’m NOT brave? What then? Don’t like labels. Thank you so much for posting. 🙂

  11. Great post Nancy – as you know you were one of the first, if not THE first to waken me to this topic and I have been wide awake to it since! Keep up the great work 😉

    1. Marie, I’d say you’ve always been pretty “wide awake” about all this stuff, Marie, but thanks for your lovely compliment.

  12. Nancy, I’m pressed for time and have much more I’d like to write but for now, I must ask: Have you taken up residence in my head? ; ) Because never has anyone so eloquently articulated my every thought on this. The word ‘Survivor’ has always made me cringe, particularly in the company of people with more chronic illnesses or recurrences. But I think my issue is actually with labels themselves. They minimize and limit us. Thank you for always expressing what so many of us feel. This was a brilliant post. XO

    1. Blonde Ambition, That’s the thing isn’t it? I believe labeling does minimize and limit us, even in the school setting I wrote about. Thank you for taking part in this discussion and you know what they say about great minds, right? Ha.

  13. The other day I went back to work for the first time after a three year hiatus. We were in a training meeting. there were 4 of us who were starting our positions. We sat at the table at a “getting to know you” session . We had to offer up some of the challenges and if there were things in our lives that have had a particular impact. Of course I wrote I was dealing with Breast Cancer. Not that I’m a survivor or battling. . One of the newer people spoke up and said you are so brave and at least it was ONLY Breast cancer not something more serious. It’s one of those very awkward moments that you want to correct that person in a way they won’t forget. Then the supervisor piped up saying we had a battle weary warrior in our midst. I wanted to throw up run out of the room, however since I need the job…. kept my composure I very politely corrected a couple people telling them that Breast Cancer is still Cancer, very difficult gruelling side effects , I didn’t go into battle or am I a weary warrior. I told them I have been dealing with My cancer the way it suited me applying kitchy labels doesn’t make breast cancer pretty or does it diminish the fact we have suffered through a lot on our terms, not by having Post-its stuck on our foreheads with labels as Survivor, battle weary brave are you kidding? I’m not brave in the least…. I’m going into my fourth year after my first surgery however I am still stuck in that vivid place of uncertainty. I have taken the position of telling people that I want it called what it is CANCER , it’s not a prettied up Pink disease that is deserving of anything but honesty.

    1. Alli, First of all congratulations on the new job. Secondly, I’m sorry you had to deal with those awkward moments. I’m sure there will be many more of them, but hopefully you’ll be able to gently educate a few people along the way. It sounds like you already are. And yes, the land of uncertainty, many of us know it well. Thank you for your insights and good luck with the job.

  14. Great post, Nancy. I had to laugh at your description of the names that are given to different ‘streams’ within the school setting. It amuses me greatly to remember that at my high school the kids were divided into ‘Advanced’, ‘Ordinary’ and ‘Basic’! Now THAT wasn’t pussyfooting around!!! I’m glad that labelling has become a little more subtle in the educational realm, even if the kids do work out what the names really mean!

    I have been reluctant to describe myself as a ‘survivor’, for a range of reasons (not least being that I’m only 1 year post diagnosis and feel that my outcome is still very uncertain). When people ask where I’m at with breast cancer, I’ve been saying that I’m “in remission”. For me this has the appeal of (a) telling it like it is, (b) hinting at the uncertainty of the post-treatment phase, and (c) not implying any particular qualities (besides, hopefully, luck) on my part. Great discussion!

    1. Liz, I guess once kids get into high school there IS less pussyfooting around isn’t there? But by then, the label damage has already been done. Remission seems like a better choice for sure. Thanks for sharing about what you say to people. It is a great discussion isn’t it? I’m glad you are part of it.

  15. Good thoughts! I’ve never felt comfortable wearing the ‘cancer survivor’ label either. Who ever said that we have to have a label or that cancer has to define who we are? Cancer thriver is closer to comfort for me … but simply ‘overcomer’ works for me. 🙂 Overcomer because while fighting cancer is hard, very hard, … there are and will be other hard things. I feel like the fight for ‘normal’ during treatment is pretty close to the cancer fight itself. I feel like Life was interrupted for a while, but as hard as this may be to understand, my life is richer having gone through the cancer fight. Great grace and peace to you!

    1. Lachelle, Yes, who said we need to slap a label on everything anyway? Thriver is one I’ve heard others use too. Over-comer, that’s a new one to me. There is a lot to over-come isn’t there? Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It’s a great discussion because you and others are speaking out. Thank you for doing so.

  16. Thanks Nancy for calling out one of my biggest pet peeves about Cancerdom. To paraphrase Barbara Ehrenreich, what do you call someone whose cancer had been in remission, but then ended up metastasizing? Must they give up the label “cancer survivor” and begin referring to themself as a “cancer dyer?” This is why I avoid that term like the plague. I usually simply say that I was a cancer patient or that I was treated for cancer in the past. I also object to all the militaristic terminology attached to cancer treatment. At no point during my ordeal did I feel “brave” or that I was doing battle with an enemy. On the contrary, I found the entire experience an exercise in passivity, since my doctors were running the show and all I could do was dutifully show up on time to all my appointments, treatments, etc. As far as I’m concerned the only time I will ever truly feel that I survived cancer is if I end up dying of something else, at which point the entire topic will be moot anyway!

    1. Jean, Thank you so much for bringing up Barbara Ehrenreich’s work. I love her wit and candor. You make an excellent point about cancer treatment. I hadn’t really thought about the passivity angle, although I guess I feel I was in partnership and involved at least to some degree in running “my show.” Or maybe I’m kidding myself. Ha. Thank you so much for adding your words of wisdom on this topic. I appreciate your input.

  17. Nancy, I agree completely that labels should be confined to soup cans. Somehow the “Big C” is made to feel less daunting if we say we battled it, whether we won or lost.

    I’m bothered the most by the label “cancer victim.” I still hear that from time to time, most recently in May at a local Cancer Center celebration of “survivors” where one of the hospital bigwigs used the term. I don’t know if I was the only one cringing in the audience.

    I’ve been wrongly labeled as loving gossip. It made me so mad that I stalked off, feeling betrayed because I had dared to share my feelings with this person that I shouldn’t gossip so much. It didn’t mean I loved it; it just meant I was struggling with it and had some guilt about it. Giving me that kind of label was verbal abuse, and only one example from this particular person.

    Anyway, before I get on my soapbox, I just want to say how much I appreciate your posts and the discussion they always generate. Keep up the good work! xxx

    1. Jan, Yes, cancer victim might just be the worst one. It’s incredible that one’s still being heard. I thought we had at least moved past that one. I’m sorry you were hurt by the ‘loving gossip’ label which seems incredibly bizarre knowing something about your character. People can be so off base sometimes. Thanks so much for always sharing so willingly and being part of the discussions, Jan.

  18. I am conflicted about the survivor label. Before I had cancer I thought “survivor” meant someone who “beat” cancer and is now living cancer free.

    I have brain cancer. It is a type of cancer that will never go away. I am afraid if I use the term survivor to explain myself people will think I am all done with cancer and I am free and clear.

    At the same time, it’s a bummer always feeling like I need to remind people that while I am a “survivor,” I still have cancer in my brain that will one day decide to continue growing so much that I will be racked with seizures and then be put back on treatment, go in for radiation, and have surgery. Again. For the third time.

    That really puts people off.

    So I just say I am a survivor living with brain cancer.

    1. Liz, I know what you mean about the conflicted feelings. We all have plenty of those. I’m sorry about your brain cancer and of course, you should call yourself what feels rights and works best for you. We all should. That’s the whole point really isn’t it? Thanks so much for sharing here. I really appreciate getting your perspective.

  19. Labels are simply a lazy way for others to describe someone else. After all, there is no label that can describe an individual, and it is our individual characteristics that make us who we are, not a label that confines us to a description based on someone else’s faulty perceptions. No one wants to be relegated to what a label does to us. With or without cancer we should be free to be who we are without the confinement of others’ ignorant concoctions. Thanks for another excellent post. Love and hugs

    1. Donna, Thanks so much for commenting. I think you summed things up in your brief comment better than I did in my entire post. Thank you. Love and hugs back.

  20. I’m not brave, or strong, and though I’ve heard several times that I have a good attitude, that isn’t really true either. On the other hand, I sometimes feel like it’s a battle to survive. I could lose the battle to stay on my meds – I think of going off every single day. I could lose the battle to get out of bed, I don’t want to, every single day. Eating well isn’t always easy. Figuring out what essentials are not all that essential, in an attempt to avoid financial ruin is another. So for me, over time, battle is fitting – but I hated it when I was going through treatment, and I will hate it when I am again in active treatment or palliative care.

    1. Alison, You certainly make good points. For me, it’s the extreme overuse of the war metaphors that drives me a little crazy. I realize they work for many people, but I’m weary of them.

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