Survivor: a person who continues to function or prosper in spite of opposition, hardship, or setbacks.

As I was struggling to work through some complicated feelings today, someone called me a “survivor.”  It’s a word that people throw around a lot as it relates to those of us affected by cancer.  In fact, the term “cancer survivor” even has its own Wikipedia page – a person with cancer of any type who is still living.

But being a cancer survivor is more than being a person who is alive after a cancer diagnosis.  I am a human being living with the emotional aftermath of the experience.  There’s the post-traumatic stress, the sleepless nights, the unpredictable emotions, and, most of all, the paralyzing fear of hearing that other shoe hit the floor.  That fear is almost indescribable – the butterflies in my stomach every time I wait for my bloodwork to come back; the feeling of dread when I feel pain anywhere in my body; and the panic that runs through my body every time I think that the doctors I trust really can’t tell me how long this will last.

In spite of this emotional volcano just waiting to erupt, I “continue to function and prosper.”  Today,  however, I wondered, “at what expense?”   I do it to protect myself, as well as those around me – if they think I’m ok, they won’t worry and if they don’t worry they won’t ask me difficult questions.  It’s telling the world I got this, when, in reality, I really don’t have it at all.

So, I decided to Google “what is the antonym to survivor.”  Words such as “failure” and  “loser” popped up.  I’d be lying if I said I don’t see myself as those things more often than I’d like to –  it’s easier to see my flaws than my strengths.  But, simply seeing myself that way from time to time does not make me a loser or a failure.  Neither does trying to keep it all together while avoiding the difficult feelings.  It makes me human and does not negate the fact that I am, indeed, a survivor.

Somehow or other, this “analysis” has moved away from seeing myself as a cancer survivor to simply a survivor.  Cancer is only one of the setbacks in my life, although it has been the most major one and the one for which I carry the most emotional baggage.  But, I have come to realize that being a survivor, be it cancer or not, doesn’t mean having all my shit together.  That’s just exhausting.  What it does mean is fighting for myself and figuring out what I want out of this precious life.