June 6th is National Cancer Survivor’s Day, a day and a name that conjures mixed feelings for the 17 million people here in the States who remember hearing the words, “You’ve got cancer.” Do we celebrate it? Curse it? Believe it? Reject it?
For some, cancer was a one and done experience. Diagnosis led to treatment and recovery with no recurrence or metastasis, even if that didn’t ensure a speedy return to “normal.” But for many, the situation is further complicated by a recurrence or progression, or recognition that cancer is a chronic diagnosis, or worse, one with a very short time horizon. And for most it includes the ongoing anxiety that comes with no longer being able to trust your body—the constant fear of recurrence that fades slowly, only after many repeated positive test results and years of good health—and the chaos that comes with a life upended by a challenging disease.
The word “survivor” itself is problematic and our emotions around it are as complex and varied as our response to the disease. Can you survive something that isn’t over and never will be? Some prefer to refer to themselves as “thrivers” while others find that far too positive a claim. For some, “warrior” describes their state for steady engagement with the disease. Some say they are “hanging on” or “getting by” with their cancers, while others use the factual, “living with cancer” or “dying from cancer” to describe themselves. As in so many aspects of cancer, there is no one word that fits all.
It’s Just a Day
While there is much to celebrate on this day—earlier detection and improvements in treatment have resulted in declining mortality rates for many of the most common cancers—it is meaningful for so many reasons other than that victory. It’s a chance to draw attention to the people who wake up every day to face the challenge of ongoing treatment. It’s a chance to focus on the need for ongoing psychological support for those who have heard those words, and for their loving caregivers, all of whom risk experiencing fear, stress, debilitating fatigue, depression, anxiety, loss of identity and helplessness.
And it’s a chance to raise awareness about the pervasiveness of cancer. As many as 40% of us will hear those words at some point in our lives, and the other 60% will take care of us. With those odds, this day offers something for everyone, regardless of what we want to call it. Use it to inspire others to find resilience. Use it to remind folks to take care of themselves and get their cancer screenings. Or, use is to bring awareness to the research and work still to be done. And if you are comfortable with the term, use it to celebrate surviving another day.