I will survive! (Until I don’t.)
In a recent A Way With Words segment, Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett considered the words “cancer survivor.” I know survivorhood well; we have been circling one another for some time. But our days together are numbered.
Following my initiation into the cancer club, I referred to myself as a “survivor” a couple of times, and it always felt artificial, forced. I was alive, but sore and scarred, and I couldn’t lift my arms above my head for some time. The high-octane s-word did not fit: it has a tinge of wishful thinking or hubris, maybe chutzpah—not to mention an unacknowledged disdain for those who perish. Anyone who has had cancer knows she can’t be sure how many days lie ahead. And we all stop surviving eventually, cancer or no cancer.
Even more, I resisted referring to myself with a noun that described just one facet of my identity. It was too essentializing. Instead I described myself as “someone who has experienced cancer,” or “who has been treated for cancer,” or, sometimes, “who has to be aware of the possibility of more cancer in her future.” (Catchy, eh?) Think of “cripple” becoming “crippled,” then “disabled.” And later moving on to “differently abled,” or “someone who uses a wheelchair,” or “who has physical limitations.” If you resist such rewording and fine-tuning, imagine being diagnosed with cancer. Might your emotional or psychological response be influenced by these terms, which identify the tumor-laden as either losers or winners?
A few months ago, I polled members of a Facebook group, Flat and Fabulous, about this very term. The variety of responses synced up pretty closely with those noted in the A Way With Words discussion. Some were fierce: “Goddammit; I sure am surviving this beast,” or, “I have been through three cancers, and I am still here.” Others felt they were not “entitled” to say they were surviving, since the oncological jury was still out. Still others, in the midst of treatment, were feeling more nauseated and weakened than triumphant. And, perhaps, irked by the pressure to triumph.
Sometimes I describe myself as “half flat,” which makes a musical pun. When I do on occasion use a noun, it is “Amazon,” to describe my body shape, not any warrior status. The word “warrior,” mentioned in the A Way With Words discussion, is another that may feel alternately inspiring or overbearing. (And as I have pointed out elsewhere, “real” women warriors are not always honored for their service.) If this fighting were more like tai ji fencing, where one learns to yield to impact and redirect it, all the while honoring one’s opponent and seeking balance, I would eagerly take up my sword again.
It’s interesting how words like this can be affirming or off-putting, welcoming or perplexing. They can honor shared experience or ignore individual stories. Or, more likely, both. And the words used to described those of us who have hosted malignancies are part of a wider complement of cancer lingo. Some find this shared vocabulary meaningful. There is a Facebook group that calls itself “My Pink Sisters.” Some women have pink-ribbon tattoos. Curiously, there are also pink drill bits used for tracking. (I am not making this up.) The Susan G. Komen Foundation even colonized the universe recently when they launched a pink space probe into the final frontier. (I am not making this up either. The Onion did. Not surprisingly, some people believed it. For good reason.) For my part, thanks to the commodification of breast cancer that proliferates like . . . like a cancer, I often choose to excise the word “breast” from my “status,” not wanting to be tied up in ribbons or to field others’ rose-colored thoughts. Of course I speak for myself only. My own preferences notwithstanding, it is important to appreciate individual experiences, responses, and strategies for—yes, survival. There is no wrong way to do cancer.
The all-or-nothing sensibility of survivorhood seems to reflect the black-and-white thinking that seeps through many discussions about cancer. As Martha mentions, we used to say “victim,” and we have moved on to “survivor.” Is there nothing in between? It’s like being forced to think oneself a prisoner or an escape artist, when living after cancer feels more like being a fugitive. Maybe a refugee. Interestingly, the older term “remission,” which Susan Gubar recalls in her “Don’t call me a cancer survivor,” sounds more realistic. Whether victim, survivor, warrior, or wimp, the word “patient” never gets dropped. Please remember that when you demand to be reassured by asking, “But you’re fine now, right? It’s behind you?”—as if cancer is a box to be checked on a to-do list. A friend recently described me as having “beat” cancer, but that is not how I see it; I still have a hot date with my oncologist every spring.
What about “veteran,” or “alum”? With the possibility of reenlistment or grad school in the future?
Who is all winner? Or all loser? Who stays in first place, and for how long? Grant points out that the term “survivor” can instill superstition. Understandably. So, can one be a semi-survivor? A sometime survivor? A suffering survivor? An aspiring survivor? A post-survivor? A part-time or temporary worker in the mutation factory? So-so? B-list? Has-been? Perhaps we are all senior rookies, or fledgling masters.
One can strive to survive, but is one ever “a survivor?” Survival is a desire, an ambition, a goal. Attaining that goal is a stroke of good fortune. Whatever I call myself, I may live to an old age or die ahead of schedule. Either way, survival is a momentary experience, not a fixed identity.
One of my tumors was said to be invasive, the other more domestic, resting contentedly “in situ.” I did not see either growth as aberrant or intrusive. They were part of my physiology, and likely part of my DNA. I accepted that they crashed the party, even though I did not invite them to stick around. But I know my body is transient, and that impermanence is part of every life story.
How about being an “initiate?” A “traveler?” A “maven,” or “doyenne?” Is there such a thing as a “cancer dancer?” Indeed, could one conceive of partnering one’s wayward insides rather than battling an alien attacker? (Perhaps the shapeshifting cells think they are in the right. “Occupy Rosie!”) Can one be a cancer yogi, or a cancer bodhisattva? Can the experience of being dismembered engender a sense of humility and belonging rather than a struggle for dominance and separation?
Clarissa Pinkola Estés refers, not specifically in regard to cancer but more generally, to the “scar clan.” That seems a way to honor both what has been lost and what remains.
Victim or survivor? Bouncer or maître d’?
Cancer mouse, cancer cat? Cancer shark? Cancer rat!
Hmm. While we’re fantasizing, maybe I can be a goalie, nimbly keeping the opponent at bay up until the second overtime period of the fifth game of the finals.
But it’s not all glory: let’s not forget the back story. 26 rounds of wind-up matches, and at last it’s opening night. Game 1: a virtuosic refusal of the puck—but no, it ricochets off of footwear and gets by! Missed signals, 32 deflections. A setback, and then the longest game ever. We prevail, but it could have gone the other way, couldn’t it? Not even Gumby-like splits guarantee a win.
I know I am returning to the image of the champion fighting off the intruder, but at least there is a team involved, not just a lone hero hoarding the win. And the goalie’s goal is to fend off any goal. (I can get with that; it sounds like Beckett.) He does not seek an endpoint; he plants himself at yours and makes sure you don’t get in. He’s a protector, not a colonizer: Mama Bear on ice.
Not to mention those extraordinary iliopsoas muscles. If anything can keep cancer at bay, they can.
(I pause to feel grateful that I have lived long enough beyond cancer to discover hockey. And to thank Martha and Grant for helping me find my inner goalie.)
A friend once used the term “cancer saint” to describe the obligation she supposed I felt to be a perfect patient. She was right, and I have aimed to to sin more ever since. Another woman, a “breast friend,” asked, “Were you afraid you would flunk cancer?” Actually, yes, I was.
As much as I resist the demarcation of carcinomatous identities, I have for efficiency’s sake coined (oops, maybe not) the term “cancer queen”: this is how I understand those who strive to ascend through the malignant ranks and reign supreme. To be the star, the “it girl”—to bask in admiration and preside over the club rather than seeking solace in sisterhood. This is another result of commodification, I think; one has to produce the best-selling cancer characterization in order to ensure . . . survival? But the celebration of the decked-out diva ensures our indifference to the humbly dressed second alto doing her own surviving in the back row of the chorus, not to mention the third-chair trombonist hiding beneath the stage and waiting patiently until the second act to play her lowly three notes.
Whom does the cancer queen serve? Does she feed her subjects, or feed off of them? Is there such a thing as a cancer vampire? Probably. After all, there are “real” cancer princesses, of the Disney persuasion. (I am not making this up.)
Let’s hope that the lifespans of Disney-derived mastectomy-scar cartoons prove short and that the women who have been asked to buy, or buy into, the fetish of the carved-up princess will persevere for a while. And let’s hope that the next generation, already swimming in pink products, will see less cancer and less cancer swag. Maybe these young ones will be shrewd and cunning, able to harness global warming to scorch rogue cells or reroute military drones to zap warriors’ tumors without being seen. Maybe these soon-to-be women will be artful dodgers, mischievous tricksters, or fearless mavericks, and they will not have to use the term “cancer” at all.
Yes, I did say we’re all impermanent.
But there are better ways to stop surviving.