What is a survivor?
Dan Zenka, Senior VP of the Prostate Cancer Foundation, recently pondered this question in an excellent post on his blog. The post has also drawn more than 50 comments, which I found very interesting based on the range of opinions and different perspectives.
The comments are about prostate cancer, but could just as easily apply to any other cancer, injury, or disease.
But the thing about cancer that is somewhat unique compared to some other diseases is the chance that it might come back.
To me, the possibility of cancer recurring does not negate someone being a survivor. For example, almost one and a half years ago, I had surgery for prostate cancer at the “young” age of 42. Now, I’m doing well and still in remission with no sign of cancer. But, of course, it could come back some day. That day could be soon or it could be years down the road or, as I hope, it could be never. Even so with this uncertainty, I consider myself a survivor. I dealt with the diagnosis, the surgery, the recovery, and everything. I have fought it as best as I could and still consider myself both a fighter and a survivor.
Of course if I make it to 2 years, 5 years or even 10 years without any sign of the cancer, I’d be very happy indeed, but I don’t think at that point I would be any more of a survivor than I am now. Perhaps the odds of me dying of prostate cancer at some point in my life will have gone down dramatically, but none of us are getting out of this life alive. Something will get us. I can tell you as both a cancer patient and scientist, there is no true line in the sand for cancer in terms of some specific length of time after which you are safe. I know a fellow whose prostate cancer came back after 14 years, but you have to find a way to move on as best you can.
At this point, there is no Sword of Damocles hanging over my head in the form of some risk of cancer coming back, and most days I don’t think about cancer as a patient but only as a researcher. I have survived this storm and importantly not only rapidly got back full speed into my science on stem and cancer cells (you can read more about my lab here), but I have also taken on new roles as patient and research funding advocate.
On the TV show, Survivor, there is at the end only one survivor. This survivor wins a million dollars for outlasting all the others. This show is not real by any stretch of the imagination, but it is indicative of a cultural expectation about the word “survivor”.
In the real world where we and our loved ones face mortality and the many bad things that can happen to anyone, a survivor doesn’t have to outlast anyone else. Also, the only reward is being alive longer than you might have been, giving you an opportunity to spend more time with your loved ones and to make a difference in the world.