Live On! What It Means To Be a Survivor

Melanie Young (breast cancer survivor, and author.)

Sunday, June 2, is National Cancer Survivors Day. I’ve given lot of thought about the word “survivor” and to what it means to survive cancer in the years since I was diagnosed in 2009. Melanie small

Once you are diagnosed with cancer you ask yourself “When exactly do I become a cancer survivor?” I looked the question up online at several sites and found varying answers:

Some say you are survivor from the moment you are diagnosed

Some say you become a survivor five years after diagnosis

Some say you are a survivor after five years of being cancer free

Some say a survivor is one who remains alive

The Merriam-WebsterDictionary definition of “survivor” is “to remain alive”

Wikipedia states “A cancer survivor is an individual with cancer of any type, current or past, who is still living”

The National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship (NCCS) defines survivor as “any person diagnosed with cancer from the time of initial diagnosis throughout his or her life.”

SEPT 2009 I contacted the American Cancer Society (ACS). The ACS does not have an official definition of “cancer survivor.” The woman I spoke with on the ACS hotline said the definition of being a cancer survivor is subjective and can mean something to different to each person. Some people call themselves a “survivor” from day one of diagnosis, and others never consider themselves a survivor. Others shy away from the word entirely.

It took over two years for me to be able to say the words “I Had Cancer’ out loud and publicly without choking up. I considered myself a cancer survivor after I completed the onslaught of surgeries and treatment to eradicate the cancer from my body. I continue to take the breast cancer fighting aromatese inhibitor drug, Arimidex, daily. I consider it preventative strike to fight a recurrence.

As a breast cancer survivor who also tested positive for the BRCA2 gene mutation I live with a tiny voice in my head reminding me that I am still at risk.

But I risk my life daily walking down the streets of New York, so I try to live without fear of recurrence. Yet, recently when a rare sunburn appeared on my left arm (the one at risk for lymphedema) I panicked as I applied topical creams to sooth my skin. “Will my arm swell? Will this lead directly to melanoma?” When I recently over indulged after a party and felt a queasy sensation in my bloated stomach I thought “My pancreas! Is it working properly?” The little voice was jingling.

I view my breast cancer survivorship and the scars and tattoos from my mastectomy as neither “scarlet letter” or a “badge of courage” on my body. They mark the physical and emotional battle wounds from my fight with cancer, and I know that scars, though permanent, are healing over time.

Some people view cancer survivorship as a calling to live life with more purpose and to pay it forward. Some see it as a sign to move onward and make changes. Others view survivorship as a way to return to and embrace the life they have with more appreciation.

What I learned from having cancer is to take charge about making choices on how I want to live my life and care for myself. Fighting cancer is about making important choices on treatment and care and how you want define your life with cancer. Whether you refer to yourself as a cancer fighter, cancer survivor or “a person who had cancer” is your choice.

Breast cancer survivor Melanie Young is author of Getting Things Off My Chest:A Survivor’s Guide To Staying Fearless and Fabulous in the Face of Breast Cancer(Cedar Fort Inc./September 10, 2013/ $14.99) Link:

You can follow her at at Twitter@mightymelanie