Thirteen years ago I received a diagnosis of an aggressive form of prostate cancer, yet I still don’t think of myself as a “survivor.” In fact, when someone attaches the label to me, I feel uncomfortable. I’m living with cancer, not surviving it.
Surviving—A Zero Sum Game
Surviving is a zero-sum game. Either you live, or you die—there’s nothing in between, just like there isn’t a “little bit of pregnancy.” If you survived cancer, the implication is your treatment eliminated the disease. It was either cut out, incinerated with radiation or dissolved by chemotherapy.
Your oncologist, radiologist, or surgeon rid your body of cancer. At least, that’s what the physician and those with cancer desperately want to believe. But is it possible to dismiss the life-ending properties of something that once lived within us?
Television commercials for cancer centers are upbeat, suggest shortly we won’t have to live with cancer, since the cure is “just around the corner.” For those of us with active cancer and understand timelines for the development of new treatment protocols, “just around the corner,” can be the distance between San Francisco and Tokyo.
My guess is a minority of people who had cancer feel “cancer-free.” They certainly are in the minority of people I’ve coached. Their oncologists may have assured them the cancer is gone, but the thought lingers, “What if they didn’t get it all?”
Since my prostate cancer cells were found in the lymph nodes and beyond the surgical margin, I never had the luxury of wondering if it was gone. I know cancer will always be my constant, unwelcome companion; my oncologist and I will be stuck in a defensive game until a cure appears from “around the corner.”
The Thought of Cancer
As someone who coaches people how to live with cancer, I often hear “What if…” thoughts from people who are in treatment, just finished treatment, or have been in remission for many years.
The use of the word “survivor,” implies that the cancer is gone; something few us readily accept. Thinking of us as “survivors,” hides the disturbing “what if,” scenarios we construct during those quiet times when frightening thoughts find their way to our consciousness.
Adaptation, Not Surviving
While I never think of myself as a “survivor,” I do view myself as someone who has learned to adapt to cancer. Unfortunately, many people confuse “adaptation” with “acceptance.” When I realized my cancer would take away many of my most treasured activities, I focused on what I could do to modify the activities. For example, marathons were out of the question after the hormone treatment began, but that didn’t lead me to stop running. I substituted short jogs in an idyllic setting. Was it the same? Of course not, but it was better than sitting on a couch lamenting the loss of a favorite activity.
Continue your support of us, but frame it in terms of helping us adapt to the physical limitations the cancer or treatment imposes and the psychological stress we experience knowing there is, or may be something inside us with the capacity for taking our lives.
So when your loved one appears less than jubilant after receiving the physician’s finding there is no evidence of cancer, understand the “thought” of cancer can be as powerful as a positive result.
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