About ten days ago, at a reception at Grace Cathedral, I run into another woman who has had breast cancer. She’s seven years out.
“Pete, this is Ellen,” I say to my husband. “She’s also a breast cancer survivor.”
Almost immediately, I regret that identification. I don’t know Ellen well. About six weeks ago, she is kind enough to invite me into her office at the cathedral and to talk to me about her breast cancer experience. She is encouraging and hopeful, generous with her time and her insights. But more than that, she is obviously strong, smart, compassionate, funny, interesting. I don’t know enough about Ellen to tell you why she is all those things, I can just feel that she is. You’ll have to take my word for it. I know that Ellen is so much more than just a “cancer survivor.” We all are.
I understand why “survivor” has come to be the term of art to describe someone who is in treatment for cancer or who has weathered treatment and has “no evidence of disease” (another term of art). “Survivor” is supposed to sound more active than “victim” or “patient,” both depressingly passive words. It’s supposed to invoke stirring ideas like triumph over adversity, prevailing against the odds, coming out at the other end of the tunnel. “Survivor” is part of the whole war metaphor that has been enlisted for cancer. The author Christopher Hitchens—usually too snarky, self-important and bullish on the Iraq war for my taste—wonderfully skewers the cancer war idiom when he announces he has metastatic esophageal cancer in Vanity Fair two months ago. Whatever I may think of Hitchens’ politics and his take on God (anti), he’s usually smart and witty.
But however different we are, neither Hitchens nor I can escape the cancer survivor war talk. It’s everywhere in what he calls “Tumorland.” Survivor is “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” It’s “Suck it up and take that hill.” It’s “No pain, no gain.” It makes the well feel empathetic and helpful. “You can beat this thing.” “You’re a fighter.” “You’ve got the best weapons at your disposal.” Many days, it makes the ill feel hopeful. It helps us to face the needles, and the side effects and the statistics.
But people are so much more complicated than their survivorship. We have literary tastes and hang ups and ambitions and projects. People who have cancer get afraid, overwhelmed, and tired, tired, tired. People who have cancer don’t always feel like being strong foot soldiers in the war against their disease. Sometimes we don’t want to cope; we don’t want to be ferocious. We want to curl up and feel sorry for ourselves and let the bills pile up and the dishes remain undone. We don’t want to struggle for understanding and insight into our situation. We don’t want to dig deep to find the strength to shield our loved ones from our distress. We want to ignore work for a week (the reason for the recent lack of posts). We want people to humor us just because. Because we have cancer! Because we want to act like we’re five years old!
And then you talk to another complex, fully-formed, powerful woman like Ellen who’s also a breast cancer survivor. You joke about the whole “survivor” nonsense. What does “survivor” mean, exactly? It’s applied to people like me, newly diagnosed and stage Ib, and to people like Hitchens, stage IV and fighting for time. It’s used for women like Ellen who’ve beat back cancer and have kept it at bay for years. It’s used for those who’ve had radical mastectomies on both sides and for people like me, who’ve so far given merely a lump of tissue to the disease.
What do we “survivors” all have in common besides cancer? Well, if you’re going to be brutally honest, being a “survivor” simply means that you haven’t died of your cancer. Pete and I are reading the original Dracula by Bram Stoker to our daughter Erin, who loves all things creepy. We’ve been joking that being a cancer survivor means you’re “Un-Dead.”
Cancer hasn’t got us “survivors.” Cancer hasn’t killed us. But what qualifier do we add? Yet? Never? How do you know when you’ve put a stake in the heart of your disease? How do you know you’re a survivor for good? I think the answer is that you never know. And survivors like Ellen and me have to learn to live with that.