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What’s Wrong With A Survivor Label Anyway?

What’s wrong with a survivor label 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.

The problem (for me) 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 poster inspire you? Not me.

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?

So, what’s wrong with the survivor label?

For some, plenty.

Survivor is only a word. I know we have to use 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.

What’s wrong with the survivor label?

Tell me how you feel about it.

How do you feel about the survivor badge/label?

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

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What's wrong with the survivor label? #cancer #survivor #breastcancer #labels

What’s wrong with a survivor badge anyway?


Monday 6th of June 2022

I think you're right - for me "survivor" implies its over. I'm not a survivor. And conflating all these experiences into one is really not helpful to anybody.


Monday 6th of June 2022

Sarah, I know the label works for some, and that's fine. I use it sometimes because it's hard to come up with a word that folks understand. Of course, they don't necessarily understand this one either. Your point about conflating all experiences into one is a really good one. One word/label can't be slapped on all of us. And it really bugs me when someone insists we take on the label. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this.


Sunday 6th of June 2021

It does seem strange to be called a survivor while you're still in treatment. I'm 4-years NED and do use the term survivor as my treatment is over. At least for now. I fear recurrence, and being a survivor doesn't mean everything is back to the way it was before treatment. There are lots of damaging side effects, both physically and mentally.


Monday 14th of June 2021

Gogs, I use the label sometimes too as I've yet to come up with an alternative that people understand. I really wish there was a better word. And you're right about the lingering damaging side effects. Some physical and some mental. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.


Monday 8th of June 2020

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!


Wednesday 10th of June 2020

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


Wednesday 30th of January 2019

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.


Saturday 21st of February 2015

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?


Sunday 22nd of February 2015

Loralie, No need to worry about offending anyone. Thank you for sharing how you feel. That's important to do.

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