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.