Whatever You Do, Don’t Call Me a Cancer Survivor. Here’s Why.

A chaplain who survived cancer makes her case for dropping the "s" (as in survivor) word.

october-2016-woliThe Voorhes for Reader's Digest

Let’s say I meet you on a bus. We really hit it off, but I’ve got to exit soon, so you’re going to tell me three things about yourself that help me understand who you are, that get at your essence. I’m wondering: Of those three things, is one of them surviving some kind of trauma, like being a cancer survivor, a war survivor, or an abuse survivor?

Many of us tend to identify ourselves by our wounds, and where I’ve seen this survivor identity have the most consequences is in the cancer community. I’ve been part of this community for a long time. I’ve been a hospice and hospital chaplain for nearly 30 years. In 2005, I was working at a cancer center when I learned I had breast cancer. I had chemotherapy and a mastectomy, with a saline implant put in. Through the process, I learned a lot about being a patient.

One surprising thing I found was that only a small part of the cancer experience is about medicine. Most of it is about feelings, faith, losing and finding your identity, and discovering strength and flexibility you never even knew you had. It’s about realizing that the most important things in life are not things at all, but relationships. It’s about laughing in the face of uncertainty—and learning that the way to get out of almost anything is to say “I have cancer.”

The other thing I learned was that I didn’t have to take on “cancer survivor” as my identity, even though there were forces pushing me to do that. Please don’t misunderstand me. The push for early screening, cancer awareness, and cancer research has normalized cancer, and that is wonderful. We can talk about cancer without whispering, and we can support one another. But too often, it feels like some people go overboard.

[pullquote] What if people decided to claim their trauma as an experience instead of taking it on as an identity? [/pullquote]

A week after my surgery, we had a houseguest. At dinner one night, he says, “Deb, now you’re really going to learn what’s important. Yes, you are going to make some big changes in your life, and now you’re going to start thinking about your death. Yep, this cancer is your wake-up call.”

Those were golden words coming from someone speaking about his own experience, but when someone is telling you how you’ll feel, it’s instant baloney. The only reason I didn’t kill him with my bare hands was that I could not lift my right arm. And it wasn’t just him. It seemed like everyone was telling me what my experience was going to mean. “Oh, this means you’re going to be doing the walk.” “Oh, this means you’re coming to the luncheon.” “This means you’re going to be wearing the pink ribbon and the pink T-shirt and the headband and the earrings and the bracelet.”

At that point, I felt like being a cancer survivor was taking over my life.

That’s when I told myself, “Claim your experience; don’t let it claim you.” We know that the way to cope with trauma, loss, or any other life-changing experience is to find meaning. But here’s the thing: No one can tell us what that meaning is. We have to decide what it means. And that meaning can be quiet and private—we don’t need to start a foundation, write a book, or work on a documentary. Instead, perhaps we make one small decision about our lives that can bring about big change.

Many years ago, I had a patient who was a wonderful young man. He was beloved by us, so it came as a shock to realize he had no friends. He lived by himself, he’d come in for chemotherapy by himself, and he’d walk home alone. But he had tons of friends on the infusion floor, with people in his room all the time. At his last chemo treatment, we had a celebration for him, and I asked, “What are you going to do now?” He answered, “Make friends.”

And he did. He started volunteering and going to a church. At Christmas, he invited me and my husband to a party, and it was filled with his friends. He decided that the meaning of his experience was to know the joy of friendship, and he learned to make friends.

Sometimes it’s not outside factors that cause us to take on that survivor identity; sometimes we like the perks, but we get stuck. One of the things I love most about being a chaplain is seeing my patients a year or years after their treatment. It’s inspiring to find out how they’ve changed and what has happened to them. So I was thrilled one day to see a former patient who was there for her one-year follow-up exam with her two adult daughters. They were ecstatic—she’d just gotten her test results and she was NED: No Evidence of Disease. We sat down, and within two minutes, she was retelling me the story of her diagnosis, surgery, and chemo, even though I’d seen her every week and knew it. She used words like suffering, agony, and struggle and ended her story with “I felt crucified.”

At that moment, her daughters stood up and left to get coffee. I handed the woman a tissue and gave her a hug. Then, because I cared for her, I told her, “Get down off your cross.” She said, “What?!” I repeated it. To this woman’s credit, she was able to talk about why she was clinging to her survivor identity. It got her attention, and people took care of her, for a change. Now it was having the opposite effect and pushing people away—they kept leaving to get coffee.

We have to let our old story go so that a newer, truer story can be told about who we are.

You may think I was a little harsh with her, so I’ll add that I was speaking out of my own experience. Years before, I was fired from a job I loved. Afterward, I wouldn’t stop talking to everyone I met about my innocence, the injustice, and the betrayal until, just like with this woman, people were walking away from me.

I realized I wasn’t processing my feelings—I was feeding them.

But with any resurrection story, we know that you must die before you can be reborn. Jesus was dead for a whole day in the tomb before he rose. For us, being in the tomb means doing our own work around our wounds and letting ourselves be healed. We have to let our old story go so that a newer, truer story can be told about who we are.

What if we lived in a world without survivors? What if people decided to claim their trauma as an experience instead of taking it on as an identity? It could mean the end of being trapped by our wounds and the start of defining ourselves by who we are becoming. Remember, we’re all on this bus together. What story are you going to tell?

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest