Guest Column

Who is a Survivor?

The other day I heard someone who has recently had cancer treatment say, “It’s too early to call me a survivor,

I have to wait another 4 years at least to qualify”. How sad is that? Why should anyone else have to define who you are? Why can’t we think of ourselves as something other than survivors?

The litany and tyranny of terms is unbelievable in the medical world of cancer. You have “metastatic” disease, you are “terminal”, you are in “remission”, you have had a “recurrence”, etc., etc. You, the person with the disease is completely overshadowed by the malignant tumour and lost sight of. No wonder we too begin to respond in like manner and use terms like “my tumour” and “my cancer”. It is as if we no longer have an identity separate from our disease. Once a survivor, always a survivor. I would argue that this is the worst thing we can do to ourselves.

The effect of the placebo is well known, what is perhaps not as well researched is the effect of the “nacebo”. We know it exists as do our doctors. Dr. Bernie Siegal talked about the exceptional cancer patients in his very inspiring books, a patient who was pushy and would not take no for an answer. For some reason, that science is now trying to understand, these patients did well and became cancer free even when they had advanced cancers. The “good” patients on the other hand did not question their status and lived up to their doctor’s expectations and no further.

I am in favour of letting go of cancer; let our doctors worry about it. There are many more precious people and moments in our life to focus on. The tag of the survivor should be put on cancer and not on us. In my case, cancer could not survive in my body for more than a year once it was detected and treatments began. It is now almost 27 years since that happened and yet every time I look at any medical file made on me in the past few years Hodgkin’s lymphoma gets an honourable mention. It seems the doctors just can’t let go of it.

I recently heard of an interesting experiment that is going to be conducted by a well known psychologist in the USA. She is going to take a group of women who have just finished treatments for breast cancer and is going to get them to go back in time and put themselves in the shoes they   wore metaphorically, before they were diagnosed with cancer. Her theory is that this group of women will experience a much more positive outcome both in terms of quality of life and their eventual disease status compared to a group of women who are wearing the shoes of uncertain and stressful survivorship.

So the next time you are asked your status by that so called helpful support group person doing the rounds of the hospital please think before you speak. You are still the person you were before you had cancer. Sticks and stones may break your bones but don’t let the name-tag “survivor” damage you too.

Harmala Gupta
Founder-President, CanSupport

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