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National Cancer Survivors Day & Why I Can’t Fully Embrace It

The first Sunday in June is National Cancer Survivors Day. This is a day marked and intended to celebrate life and honor all those who are living with a history of cancer. What could possibly be wrong with this? On the surface, nothing at all, but…

Why is it so hard for me to fully embrace such a day?

My thoughts on this particular day’s designation have not changed much since I wrote “What’s Wrong With a Survivors Badge?” back in 2011. And yes, I’ve been blogging that long! I was uneasy with such a day designation back then. I still am. 

I don’t care much for most labels. Never have. I don’t care much for the cancer survivor label either really. Admittedly, I have yet to come up with another word that works better, so yes, I use it too. I don’t wish to repeat myself, so you can read my thoughts and reasons for my uncomfortable-ness regarding the survivor “badge” via that earlier post if you’d like.

As I read through that earlier post and then the comments, once again, it hit me why I cannot fully embrace this day.

It feels a bit too celebratory. It sounds a bit too triumphant.

Yes, more and more people (some 14 million cancer survivors in the US alone) are surviving cancer. Yes, there is life after cancer (but not for everyone). Yes, life is always something to celebrate.

The intention of this day is to show what life post-cancer looks like (Good intentions perhaps, but is this really possible?) Here’s what’s stated on the website:

National Cancer Survivors Day is an opportunity for cancer survivors to come together and celebrate this new reality in cancer survivorship. There is life after cancer. It may not be the same as before cancer, but it can be beautiful, rewarding, and sometimes even better than before. And that’s something to celebrate.

So what’s my problem?

For me the crux of it (in addition to that ‘better than before” slippery slope) is that once again, it leaves out those who have not survived.

What about them?

Where’s their day?

We cannot continue to erase those who die from metastatic disease. We must never give the impression that we have beaten cancer because we have not.

And what about those presently living with mets?

They’re sort of in this survivors’ circle, yet at the same time, sort of on the outside looking in.

Back to that earlier post of mine… reading through the comments, I realized that on that one post – three women who commented have died from metastatic breast cancer since they left their comments. Two others have since been diagnosed with metastatic disease. That’s five women right there, whose families might not be feeling quite so celebratory about the state of affairs in Cancerland on this day or any other.

So yes, let’s celebrate life, caregivers, supportive friends and communities, talented and dedicated medical teams and scientific break-throughs and all the rest of the stuff worth celebrating. And kudos to the backers of this day for intending to shed light on the quality of life challenges that so many cancer survivors face for the rest of their lives.

However, the blinders must never be put on, not even for a day.

We must not forget that people are still dying from cancer. People are still living through horrendous cancer treatments. People are still trying to manage debilitating and long-lasting side effects from cancer treatment.

Let’s not pat ourselves on the back too many times on this day or any other.

And most survivors do not care about being patted on the back anyway, nor do they necessarily appreciate being referred to as brave or courageous; at least this one does not. (This is another goal of the National Cancer Survivors Day, that’s why I bring it up).

As my very wise friend Rachel, author of the Cancer Culture Chronicles, commented back then on my Survivor’s Badge post:

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.

Well said, Rachel, (AnnaCCChronicles was her pen name) and terrific question too.

So as for celebrating on National Cancer Survivors Day, although of course I’m grateful to be surviving, I think I’ll pass on the celebrating part.

Call me an oddball if you want, but I’m going to remember and celebrate the lives of those who have not survived.

As far as I’m concerned, those are the ones who deserve the honor every day.

How do you feel about National Cancer Survivors Day?

How do you feel about the survivor label?

Note:  Since that original post was written, these three women (who left comments on that one post) have died from metastatic breast cancer:  Rachel Cheetham Moro, aka The Cancer Culture Chronicles, Shelly Ray Gibbons, aka The Dirty Pink Underbelly and Cheryl Radford, author of the blog, Indigo Dreaming. Miss you all, ladies. We will not forget.




Sunday 7th of June 2015

Couldn't agree with you more, Nancy. The first time I became aware of this day, it made me feel grumpy, cynical, and, frankly, bored. I think I might have even lampooned it in an old post. And if I haven't, I might just have to do that this year. What the heck are we 'celebrating' anyway? I'm tired of feeling like crap since this whole sleighride began, I'm tired of losing friends, and I'm tired of more friends being diagnosed with stage IV mets. You know what I'll be doing on the day? Trying to make some headway cleaning out the trash from my art studio that's accumulated since I was diagnosed, that I haven't had the wherewithal to get to all these years. And thinking about mets. And about people who haven't 'survived.' xoxo, Kathi


Monday 8th of June 2015

Kathi, I had a feeling you agreed with me on this. Sometimes made up holidays like this make me feel grumpy, cynical and yes, rebellious. I hope you do write a post on it sometime. I am tired of all of those things too, Kathi. I'm thinking about all the non-survivors too. Where's their day? Thank you for reading and commenting.


Saturday 6th of June 2015

I just posted on my own blog about this. The word survivor feels so uncomfortable to me and I don't identify with it. I thought that maybe it's because this is all still so new and raw for me, I don't feel like I survived anything yet. I might have gotten my mastectomy, chemo and radiation, but I'm living with the repercussions of these treatments. It doesn't feel like survival at all. Great post. I feel like you were able to put into words some of the things I was not.


Monday 8th of June 2015

Carrie, Uncomfortable, that's a good way to describe it for me too. I don't really identify with the survivor label either, but I do use it sometimes. I will be reading your post soon. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.


Friday 5th of June 2015

You have very articulately said what I have been thinking all day. Thank you. As someone living (and trying to live well) with mets, I do often feel like I am an outsider "looking in". Every argument in this piece is excellent in fact.


Monday 8th of June 2015

Laurie, Thank you for chiming in. Your opinion means a great deal to me, Laurie. And it's terrible when those with mets feel like outsiders, and it's unacceptable too.


Monday 16th of June 2014

I'm not big on such holidays. Luck is one of the biggest reasons I'm still here. I'll never forget that simple fact.

Hope you had a great day!


Monday 16th of June 2014

Maesprose, It's a good fact to keep in mind and just one more reason such holidays seem sort of hollow to me. Thanks for reading and commenting.


Saturday 7th of June 2014

I personally am thankful for Big Pharma. One of my sons is a research scientist for one of them and works so hard at bringing new drugs on the market. He just finished up research on a new drug for leukemia and lymphoma that will now go into clinical trials. It takes years and millions of dollars to bring a new drug to the public. I have ovarian cancer-just finished 9 cycles of chemo 5 days ago. I don't feel like a survivor yet-maybe if I live several years cancer-free.


Monday 9th of June 2014

Liz, I'm thankful for the good work that big pharma does as well. You must be so proud of your son's work. I think it's the huge profits and steep prices being charged for some of these drugs that concerns many people. Among other things I'm sure - not what your son is doing. I'm glad to hear you finished your chemo cycles. I understand how you don't quite yet care for the survivor label. Hoping for all the best for you. Thanks for reading and sharing.

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