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Labels Belong on Soup Cans

Labels belong on soup cans not cancer patients. What am I talking about?

Let me explain.

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.”  Patients do not fail treatments. Treatments fail patients. 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 the late Catherine Brunelle (who blogged at Bumpy Boobs) said in a comment she left on Beth’s 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


Thursday 6th of April 2017

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.


Monday 10th of April 2017

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.

Donna Peach

Sunday 22nd of July 2012

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


Monday 23rd of July 2012

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.


Saturday 14th of July 2012

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.


Saturday 14th of July 2012

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.

Jan Baird Hasak

Friday 13th of July 2012

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


Saturday 14th of July 2012

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.


Thursday 12th of July 2012

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!


Thursday 12th of July 2012

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.

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