How do you feel about the survivor label?

Does National Cancer Survivors Day® Sound Too Celebratory?

The first Sunday in June is designated as National Cancer Survivors Day®. I’ve never been a fan of this particular designated day. You can read why here and here.

In a nutshell, it sounds too celebratory to my liking, and also because it excludes those with metastatic disease. I know some (maybe even you) ask, why be such a wet blanket about this?

Well, because reality matters. We must never accept or promote the illusion that we’ve tackled cancer because we have not. We must never accept cancer progress hype, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s what this day feels like. And if there’s one thing we do not need more of in Cancer Land, it’s cancer progress hype.

What hype?

For example, cancer treatment hype exists. I’ve been meaning to write a post about the annoying TV ads put out by major cancer centers, but haven’t gotten around to it yet. Talk about hype. Some of these ads leave the impression that all you need to do to “beat” cancer is get treatment at whatever institution is being featured in the particular ad you are viewing.

Designating a day like National Cancer Survivors Day® feels like cancer progress hype as well, and even well-meaning hype can be harmful because giving the pubic the impression we’re doing better than we really are gets us nowhere fast.

No doubt about it, we’ve made huge strides in Cancer Land regarding some things. However, I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel like celebrating quite yet.

I visited the National Cancer Survivors Day® website about page again and the mission remains the same:

National Cancer Survivors Day® is an annual, treasured Celebration of Life that is held in hundreds of communities nationwide, and around the world, on the first Sunday in June. It is a CELEBRATION for those who have survived, an INSPIRATION for those recently diagnosed, a gathering of SUPPORT for families, and an OUTREACH to the community. On National Cancer Survivors Day®, thousands gather across the globe to honor cancer survivors and to show the world that life after a cancer diagnosis can be fruitful, rewarding, and even inspiring.

Just because I’ve had a cancer diagnosis, I don’t feel I deserve a day to be honored for doing what I was told. For showing up to appointments. For having the surgeries. For following treatments laid out for me.

I do not deserve a day of honor for still being here when my mother and many of my friends (as well as countless others I never knew) are not. They deserve honor (among other things), not me.

Such a celebratory day feels blatantly dismissive. Those who live daily with the knowledge they will likely not survive cancer are left standing on the outside looking in. Again. Unacceptable! I will not erase those who did not and will not survive.

It might also make those who are struggling and feel their post-diagnosis lives are anything but fruitful, rewarding and inspiring to feel left out as well.

I must mention, I noticed the site’s blog this year includes a post written by the spouse of someone who did not survive her cancer. So there’s at least an attempt to address the fact that many do NOT survive cancer.

I guess that’s progress. Sort of. But it’s not enough.

I often think about the wise words of my friend Rachel Cheetham Moro who said this about National Cancer Survivors Day®:

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 catalog.

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.

Amen to that.

And then there’s the whole survivor label issue itself to contend with. Sometimes it feels like the survivor label is being jammed down my throat and if I resist, I’m considered to be ungrateful. Which, of course, I am not.

I just don’t need or want a survivor’s badge. I do not care to be defined by such a word.

A person can lose herself, or be swallowed up by a label, any label. 

That’s why even seven years after my diagnosis, I hesitate to “wear” the survivor label. It feels uncomfortable to me. As I’ve mentioned before, I admit to using it sometimes because I can’t come up with an alternative word that people relate to.

I don’t know about you, but I avoid using it whenever I can. 

A few people have commented on previous posts that they see National Cancer Survivors Day® as an opportunity for outreach. Some love the survivor label as well. I respect everyone’s views regarding this day and this label. In fact, if you support this particular day’s designation, I’d love to hear from you.

For me, the bottom line remains this:  there’s danger in making it sound as if we have successfully triumphed over cancer because again, we have not. And I will not leave my sisters and brothers dealing with metastatic disease standing on the outside looking in. 

So, as far as celebrating on National Cancer Survivors Day® – thanks, but no thanks. I’ll pass. Again.

I’m still just not that into it.

What about you?

How do you feel about the survivor label?

Do you think National Cancer Survivors Day sounds too celebratory or do you appreciate the day’s designation?

Am I just being a wet blanket?

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How do you feel about the survivor label?

17 thoughts to “Does National Cancer Survivors Day® Sound Too Celebratory?”

  1. Excellent post. I underwent a year of treatment for Stage 3 Triple Negative Breast cancer in 2014 and not once have I labelled myself a survivor. Maybe that is because of my poor prognosis (not only did I not have a complete pathological response to neoadjuvant chemotherapy, we learned from the mastectomy specimen that the tumour in fact had tripled in size while I was undergoing chemo) superimposed upon some wisdom and experience I have acquired being a physician for almost 40 years. Especially now that I have been diagnosed with some heart damage from the cardiotoxicity of chemo, I am and will always be a cancer patient, that is, a recipient of health care (both surveillance and treatment, the latter currently only being heart meds but that is more likely than not to be joined by chemo within next few years) related to my cancer. Having said that, I can certainly understand and support others labelling themselves as survivors. I just can’t understand how a day of celebration is warranted.

    1. Laine, Interesting how you mention you have not once labeled yourself a survivor. I’m sorry to hear you have heart damage from the cardiotoxicity of chemo. On top of the cancer. It’s a lot to deal with, so it’s very understandable you feel as you do. Like you, I respect that some do like the survivor label, as well as this particular day’s designation. Neither work well for me. Thank you for reading and sharing.

  2. I think it should be called National Cancer Day. I agree with you on the whole survivor thing. Doesn’t help us mesters feel any better.

    1. Lisa, I think it’s horrible the way this day makes many of those with metastatic disease feel left out. Again. I realize some say, you are a survivor, too, but I also know many metsters certainly do not feel this label fits them. At all. Thank you for sharing.

  3. I do not like being defined by the word “survivor” of anything. Just as there are people that grow up in poverty and abuse and manage to rise above their circumstances I do not like having that word defining me. I have survived so far and I’m glad for that. I am still the same person, maybe a little better but certainly no worse for having undergone the therapy and treatment for this disease. I am not breast cancer, I am not a victim, just a person who has gone through the experience of this terrible disease and so far have come out successfully on the other side. I do not need any special commendation and prefer to just keep it as part of my medical history and move on.

    1. Sandy, Any label can certainly become restrictive, confining and uncomfortable to “carry” around. Survivor is better than victim, that’s for sure. We are just people. I don’t need any special commendation either and NCSD just feels unnecessary or mislabeled or something. Maybe they raise a lot of money and do good things. But still…at least change the mission statement to include supporting those with metastatic disease. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this, Sandy.

  4. You could not have expressed my feeling more perfectly. I have had breast cancer for years and it is now stage IV. I have never classified myself as a survivor, but as the fact I have cancer, and fortunately if you live long enough there is a good chance it may come back. I am not the kind of person who is looking for sympathy, but just that I have breast cancer and do the treatment just as I would for any other disease I might have to deal with .
    Thank you again for expressing my feeling.

  5. I don’t think you’re a wet blanket at all. I don’t have metastatic disease (yet) and I would never call myself a survivor. I wonder who comes up with these ideas for “special days”. It annoys me to think that Cancer Survivor’s Day was something dreamed up by people who’ve never had to endure the disease. To me, celebrating us as “survivors” really trivializes what we are dealing with in the days and years after our initial diagnosis and treatment. When you think about it, the whole event is quite silly. We don’t celebrate diabetes survivor day or heart attack survivor day.

    1. Lennox, Glad to hear you don’t think I’m being a wet blanket. 🙂 Thank you for sharing how you feel about this particular day’s designation. Guess we’re on the same page.

  6. Just read this post and I am in total agreement. I had stage III 14 years ago and after surgery, chemo and radiation I have no evidence of disease but I do not think of myself as cancer survivor, in fact I rarely let anyone know that I had cancer. Just 1 week after I finished my treatment my brother was found to have pancreatic cancer and he died 4 months later. No I don’t feel like a cancer survivor. Also my son had UC and had to have his colon removed and will always have to wear a bag plus has other issues from surgery. No I do not think of myself as a cancer survivor.

  7. Hey Nancy, I’ll pass on this questionable day of celebration too. Not just because I have metastatic breast cancer, but because we have no way of knowing who will actually survive. Studies have shown that 30% of early stage BC’s go on to metastasize despite a Cancer-free label given them at end of treatment. Its misleading! People have a right to know the potential return of their cancer 20 or more years later so they stay vigilant. I’m not trying to scare anyone, but i wouldn’t want to be led down the primrose path & have a recurrence or metastasis just when I was feeling safe & permanently cured. I would feel I’d been deceived. I want to thank you for standing beside those of us with Stage 4 BC & for always making sense of the nonsense going in out there! I sometimes think these movements & celebrations are designed to take the pressure off the cancer researchers & treating physicians…not to mention Big Pharma.

  8. I’m avoiding it. I have metastatic disease and we are survivors. We survive knowing we won’t and I can’t stand the pretty pinkness of it all. Honestly it feels like every day is survivors day for those who got through their therapies and are rejoicing in their new normals. I’m not bitter I’m happy for them I just wish I could celebrate too. There’s not a whole lot but cancerversaies in metastatic world and those are just rife with confusion and I wonder whether to celebrate or to cry or both. Birthdays are the same. Yeah another year of side effects, oncology appointments, treatments, scanxiety, and so on. But we survive best we can.
    Love you,

    1. Ilene, “We survive knowing we won’t” that’s powerful. We all do the best we can I guess. Thank you for sharing thoughts on National Cancer Survivors Day. xx

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