There is an ongoing discussion among those of us who have faced breast cancer…really, I guess for those who have faced any chronic illness. How do we classify ourselves after treatment, when the doctors have sent us home to live our lives? Are we in remission? Are we cured? Are we a survivor, a warrior, a patient…a victim? What do we call ourselves when someone asks…or even if someone never asks? What do we call ourselves inside our own minds and hearts?
Is it bravery to face a weekly regime of deadly drugs coursing through your veins? Is it heroic to drum up the courage to keep walking through some semblance of life when the fatigue wears you down to nothing that even resembles human life? Are we really survivors when we face the reality that the enemy can return at any given moment of any given day…and win the final battle for our lives?
I’m not really all that keen on labels, but I do understand that in dealing with situations it helps to have words to express what is going on inside us, as well as ways to communicate to others about where we’ve been…and where we’re going. Being the book nerd that I am, in order to make a better judgment on the use of certain terms, I usually turn to the dictionary. I remember in middle school, if we wanted to know the meaning of a word, my language arts teacher used to always tell us to “look it up.” When we told him we didn’t know how to spell a word, he would say “Look it up. How do you expect to learn how to spell the word if you don’t look it up? I’m not a dictionary, I’m a teacher, look it up.” So…I look it up.
Survive: definition 2 (there are five in the Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary) says: to remain or continue in existence or use.
Well, looking at it like that, those of us who have made it to the end of treatment are continuing in existence; and hopefully, still being useful in some capacity.
5) to endure or live through (an affliction, adversity, misery, etc.).
I can think of very few things that would classify as an affliction, adversity, or misery more than cancer diagnosis and treatment, and anyone who has endured one more day of treatment, anyone who has lived through the trials of chemotherapy, has definitely “survived.”
Now, on to Survivor: 1) a person or thing that survives. And: 3) a person who continues to function or prosper in spite of opposition, hardship, or setbacks. Hmm, this takes a little looking into.
I realize that most people consider the term function to mean “work” or “performing tasks or activities.” And while this is one of the definitions of function, it is not the first definition of the word. Definition 1b) the purpose for which something is designed or exists; role. So the question comes down to this: what purpose were you designed for? What is your function?
My belief is that as human beings we were designed for the purpose of relationship. If you are Christian, you primary and foremost relationship is with the Creator of the Universe; but second only to this, is your relationship with others. Are you a wife, a mother, a sister, a daughter, a cousin, an aunt…a friend? These are the relationships you were created for…your purpose in life…your role…why you exist. Unless you somehow miraculously managed to live inside a little bubble before, during and after your diagnosis and treatment, you continued (and continue now) to exist in relationship–for as long as you take a breath on this earth. For every moment that you have on this planet during and AFTER your treatment, you are surviving…you are a SURVIVOR. It’s not about the quantity, my friends. If you took one feeble breath past treatment, you have survived. And if you took that breath fulfilling your role as wife, mother, daughter, cousin, aunt, friend…you are a survivor.
On to more words.
Is a cancer patient BRAVE? I shall skip over that word and go straight to COURAGE, since that is what Webster’s does.
Courage: 1) the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear.
Here is where old Webster and I part ways, somewhat. I do not believe that a courageous person has to face said difficulty, danger, pain, etc. “without fear.” I believe that it is the ability to continue to FACE said difficulty that makes courage. Or said another way, courage is facing the difficulty, danger, pain, etc., in spite of fear. I know there’s a really good quote from a really good recent movie that speaks of this, but chemo brain has once again set in and I can’t remember it.
I believe that it is a truly rare (and possibly foolhardy) individual who faces adversity or danger without fear. Fear is a normal, biological, physiological, emotional response to danger…not something the average person is likely to escape in times of serious hardship.It is what usually spurs the average human to flee danger, whenever possible; which keeps the species alive. But it is the truly courageous (i.e., BRAVE) soul who can face what needs to be faced–what HAS to be faced–despite the fear she/he feels.
Is a cancer survivor a HERO? Well, let’s look, once again, to Webster’s book of words.
Hero: 1) a person of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities. 2) a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal.
Taking the two definitions together, anyone who faces the trials of chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, etc. has distinguished themselves (in the eyes of society) as having courage, thus you ARE a hero.
Not only that, but for every battle won in ranks of the chemotherapy infusion centers, surgical units, and radiation therapy clinics–even the winning of one solitary day–is teaching the doctors and researchers more and more about how to fight this disease. Which will in turn, save lives in the future. So if your definition of HERO is that you have to save someone else…you qualify.
And my final lesson on definitions for today is:
Warrior: 1) a person engaged or experienced in warfare; soldier. Now, I don’t know about you, but I do know that in my own journey through cancer, I was waging war. My enemy was/is cancer.
With every healthy lifestyle change I have made and continue to make, I wage war against cancer. With every word that I write; every time I tell others of the benefits of self-checks and mammograms; every breath I take in defiance of the disease that threatened my life…I wage a war again triple negative breast cancer.
My enemy is not death. Death happens eventually to everyone. It is not my enemy…it is inevitable. My enemy is CANCER. Every moment that I live beyond cancer, I survive…I wage war…I battle for the protection of those yet diagnosed…I continue to fulfill my purpose as mother, wife, sister, daughter, cousin, aunt, and friend. I am surviving. I am a survivor. I am a hero. I am a warrior against the dreaded enemy…cancer.
It’s okay if you choose not to use these words to describe yourself. Labels really aren’t that important in the giant scheme of life. What is important is the purpose you fulfill IN life. Use the time you have been given–however long that may be–to make a REAL difference in RELATIONSHIP. And let others worry about what to call you: warrior, hero, survivor…mother, sister, daughter, cousin, aunt…FRIEND. Some labels are truly worth having!