Breast Cancer Survivor | How Do You Define It?

“When we embrace uncertainty, it can be very liberating.  If you can accept the uncertainty, it allows you to live life every day.” – Victor Gospodinoff
The term ‘breast cancer survivor’ takes on different meanings for breast cancer patients and their loved ones.  While some patients use the term ‘survivor’ to describe their experience with cancer, others do not agree that they are true survivors, and would rather call themselves ‘warriors.’  Others see the emotional, physical, and emotional toll on their lives and call themselves ‘conquerors.’  Some feel that the cancer was some sort of an anomaly in their otherwise normal life, and would rather call themselves a ‘survivor of cancer treatment’ rather than a breast cancer survivor.   Someone I know told me the term ‘survivor’ indicates that the disease is defeated, although it only means that they have succeeded in getting through the ordeal, and are now wiser and better adapted for the precious life ahead of them.  Perhaps some people view it like that…..
So, if you agree with the term ‘survivor’ the question then is – “If you are a breast cancer survivor, when did you become one?”  Is it at diagnosis, surgery, or on treatment completion?  The answer may vary and it mostly seems dependent on their own decision, and not based on medical milestones or opinions of others.
The following are some ‘survivor’ definitions found on cancer websites:

  • The National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) definition of a cancer survivor is: “An individual is considered a cancer survivor from the time of diagnosis, through the balance of his or her life. Family members, friends, and caregivers are also impacted by the survivorship experience and are therefore included.”
  • The National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship (NCCS) pioneered the definition of survivor as from the time of diagnosis and for the balance of  life, a person diagnosed with cancer is a survivor. This expansive definition of “survivor” includes people who are dying from untreatable cancer. NCCS later expanded the definition of survivor even further to include family, friends and voluntary caregivers who are affected by the diagnosis in any way.
  • Macmillan Cancer Support in the UK defines a cancer survivor as someone who is “living with or beyond cancer”, namely someone who:
    • has completed initial cancer management and has no apparent evidence of active disease;
    • is living with progressive disease and may be receiving cancer treatment, but is not in the terminal phases of illness; or
    • has had cancer in the past

Many cancer patients describe their life-changing experience as an opportunity for transforming themselves.  Many cannot relate to the term ‘survivor’ and find they are bracing themselves for the time when cancer will return, not if cancer will return.  Some patients feel it is dangerous to call themselves ‘survivors’ because they consider it a sign that may bring about a comeback.  For some patients and families, it is hard to talk about being a breast cancer ‘survivor’ until there is cure for cancer – they are comfortable saying they are in ‘remission.’
The bottom-line is that it depends on how the person views their individual situation…for someone who survived the diagnosis, surgery, chemotherapy, and regular follow-ups, it is indeed survival and they may want to shout out from rooftops saying “I SURVIVED!”  There is no right or wrong term in this situation, and it is all in one’s mental framework.


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