Whatever You Do, Don’t Call Me a Cancer Survivor. Here’s Why.


Let’s say I meet you on a bus. We really hit it off, but I’ve got to exit soon, so you’re going to tell me three things about yourself that help me understand who you are, that get at your essence. I’m wondering: Of those three things, is one of them surviving some kind of trauma, like being a cancer survivor, a war survivor, or an abuse survivor?

Many of us tend to identify ourselves by our wounds, and where I’ve seen this survivor identity have the most consequences is in the cancer community. I’ve been part of this community for a long time. I’ve been a hospice and hospital chaplain for nearly 30 years. In 2005, I was working at a cancer center when I learned I had breast cancer. I had chemotherapy and a mastectomy, with a saline implant put in. Through the process, I learned a lot about being a patient.

One surprising thing I found was that only a small part of the cancer experience is about medicine. Most of it is about feelings, faith, losing and finding your identity, and discovering strength and flexibility you never even knew you had. It’s about realizing that the most important things in life are not things at all, but relationships. It’s about laughing in the face of uncertainty—and learning that the way to get out of almost anything is to say “I have cancer.”

The other thing I learned was that I didn’t have to take on “cancer survivor” as my identity, even though there were forces pushing me to do that. Please don’t misunderstand me. The push for early screening, cancer awareness, and cancer research has normalized cancer, and that is wonderful. We can talk about cancer without whispering, and we can support one another. But too often, it feels like some people go overboard.

Next page

About the author


Leave a Comment