Last month was breast cancer awareness month. As a breast cancer “survivor” myself, most people assume that I get all “rah rah” about it. Yet I don’t. I’ve always been uncomfortable with how breast cancer survivors – and the month itself – is treated (especially within the media). It’s as though we’re heroes for having had cancer and “survived”. The truth is: cancer survivors are not heroes.
I know that sounds harsh but bear with me. Because I’m going to prove it to you.
What Exactly is a Hero?
If I’m going to convince you that cancer survivors are not heroes, I supposed I need to begin with what a hero even is. According to Merriam-Webster, a hero is:
- a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability;
- an illustrious warrior;
- admired for achievements and noble qualities; and/or
- someone who shows great courage.
Since it’s pretty obvious that cancer survivors aren’t mythological or legendary figures of divine descent, we can cross that category off our list and focus on the rest of the definition.
Why Cancer Survivors Are Not Heroes
One big reason cancer survivors are considered heroes relates to the language typically used when describing the cancer journey. It’s a “battle” or “war” that they’re “fighting”. And if they come through treatment cancer-free, they’re a “survivor” of this great “battle”.
Funny enough, I never gave this much thought… until I was diagnosed with breast cancer. That’s when I realized that this language doesn’t represent reality. And that it makes many cancer patients (like me) uncomfortable. Here’s why…
Reason #1: Cancer Isn’t a War, Fight, or Battle
Cancer is an illness – a disease – that ravages the body, mind, and soul. It’s not a war or fight that can be “won” by the patient.
Fighting a war involves tactics. And those tactics are the foundation for whether you win or lose the war. Tactics imply having some measure of control over your outcome. If you employ the right tactics you’re more likely to succeed.
Unfortunately, that’s not how cancer or its treatment works. Cancer patients have zero control. It’s one of the hardest aspects of dealing with the disease.
There are standard protocols and treatments for most cancers, which are dependent on the type of cancer you have and how far your cancer has progressed.
And if the cancer has metastasized, then it’s not about curing your cancer. It’s about making you comfortable and extending your life before cancer takes you.
Often there are very few options – if any – available to cancer patients and their doctors other than the standard protocols.
Are there trials available? Sometimes. But to get in you must meet specific criteria based on your cancer and the stage you’re in. And acceptance into a trial doesn’t mean you receive the new treatment (you might end up in the control group).
Reason #2: There’s No Winning (or Losing)
The language around cancer presumes that there are “winners” and “losers”. But here’s the thing: the reason you get cancer is because your body is already losing. And every cancer patient knows this.
And what about those who die or are living with metastatic cancer? Are they losers?
The win/lose language implies that those who die from cancer could have done something differently or did something that caused their death. And that’s not true.
Besides, what have the survivors really won? Here’s what I “won”:
- scars I didn’t have before the cancer
- brain fog and memory issues
- fear that my cancer will someday return
Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to be alive and (to my current knowledge) cancer-free. But I don’t feel like I’ve “won” against cancer because I know that it can come back. And if it does come back, it will be more aggressive and less likely that I’ll continue to survive.
Early in my cancer treatment, I met a metastatic breast cancer patient who was asked what that meant. In reply she said “I’m living with cancer until I die from it.”
There’s no winning. Just living… until you die.
Reason #3: Cancer Survivors Aren’t “Special”
Life is hard, and our bodies are frail. Everyone deals with death and sorrow. And many have negative health events unrelated to cancer, such as a stroke or heart attack.
Some people get a debilitating disease that’s not cancer such as Muscular Sclerosis or Alzheimer’s. Others live with depression.
My point? We all have our fair share of difficulties to get through, so why do we treat cancer survivors as more special than anyone else?
When you treat cancer survivors as heroes, then you’re treating them as though they’re extra special. And you’re doing so because they had cancer and lived to be a “survivor”.
Think about how strange that is. What’s worse, you’re treating those who are dying from cancer as though they’re not special.
Reason #4: Having Cancer Doesn’t Automatically Make You Brave, Noble, or Courageous
During my cancer treatment – and for several years after – I often heard how brave and courageous I was (sometimes even noble). I sometimes still hear this. But why? Because I was unfortunate enough to get cancer.
Bravery, courage, and nobility all require you to make a pro-active choice. But there’s zero choice involved when you have cancer. You get it, you go to your doctor, and you do what they tell you to do so you can live longer.
Sticking the words “brave”, “courageous”, and “noble” to cancer patients and survivors doesn’t make them all of a sudden have those characteristics. And it doesn’t make living with cancer or the post-cancer life any easier. It can actually make things harder.
Here’s the thing: when you have cancer you’re terrified it’s going to kill you. Not only did I fervently pray, but I tried bargaining with God for my life. And hearing that I was “courageous” and “noble” (while praying, hoping, and bargaining for my life) made me feel ashamed.
If Cancer Survivors Are Not Heroes, What Are They?
Hopefully I’ve gotten my point across without being misunderstood. The fact that someone has had or currently has cancer isn’t what makes them brave or courageous. Nor does it make them “special”.
People who have cancer are just trying to live their lives as best they can for as long as they can. Cancer diagnosis, treatment, and post-treatment is all about living and waiting. Just like everyone else.
But just because cancer survivors are not heroes doesn’t mean that you can’t learn something from them (because you can).
New Traits and Characteristics Are Developed
Each individual deals with their cancer journey differently. Some people are able to stay positive. Others not so much. Some become grateful for the simplest pleasures. And yet others no longer take things as seriously as they once did.
Pay attention to these new traits. There’s nothing wrong with noticing and attaching words to them. Just be sure they’re real – and not words that are lazily attached to them because they’ve been unfortunate enough to have had cancer.
[Recommended Reading: What Cancer Survivors Want You to Know].
What You Can Learn From Cancer Survivors
There’s something about thinking you might die that has a way of putting life in perspective. You learn what’s really important in life. And you discover that much of what you previously thought of as important… isn’t.
Once you get through your treatment and find out that you have more time, you want to live life differently. Because you understand how fragile it is and that it can be taken away at any moment.
The cancer journey changes people. Much is learned about life throughout the journey. Which means that cancer survivors are wiser. And you can learn something from them.
So, instead of regarding cancer survivors as heroes, treat them as folks that you can learn something from because of what they’ve been through. You never know, you may just become wiser yourself.
Until next time…
P.S. Are you a cancer survivor who’s trying to figure out how you’ve changed? You keep trying to go back to your previous life but it’s not working. All you know is that you don’t feel right and need some help to figure this out. I’m working on something JUST FOR YOU. A group coaching experience designed to help you figure out how cancer changed you and the exact next steps to take to get you going on the right path. Sign up below to be notified when doors open.