The Meaning of Survivor

One of my favourite parts of putting the Stretch Heal Grow yoga retreat together has been getting in all the applications and connecting with  the incredible group of women who have been applying to attend.  I got an email last week from a woman on our waitlist sharing an article that she wrote. Aly was diagnosed with breast cancer at 36 and found that writing helped her deal with her diagnosis. I asked her if I could post her article on what being a survivor means to her. Thanks for letting me share it Aly!


Accepting The Meaning Of Survivor

by Alyson Geary

“My husband is a cancer survivor too!” said a woman I just met. Who is she talking to, I think? I look around the room. I am the only one in the room and I did have breast cancer so it must be me. I can’t catch my breath for a moment. A survivor? I wasn’t close to death though. Or was I?
At the age of 36 I was diagnosed with stage 1 invasive breast cancer. I underwent an eight hour surgery that included a single mastectomy and immediate breast construction. I am now in the middle of receiving chemotherapy and a second surgery still remains. Does all of that make me a survivor? Or do I have to finish treatment and be alive at the end of it to be put into this growing category? What does it mean to be a survivor? It is such a bold statement that carries with it such a pronounced definition. I am struggling with where I fit in and how I see myself.
For the sake of my sanity, I need to better understand what it means to be called a survivor because all those breast cancer sisters who are photographed in those fundraising walks or runs sure look happy with their branded “I survived cancer” pink t-shirts.

Aly and her boys

According to the dictionary definition of the word survivor, it can be as real as surviving a massacre to a softer more philosophical view meaning to cope well with life’s hardship and difficult circumstances. When I think of the word survivor, I immediately think of a life or death situation — it was touch and go but that person miraculously made it through. Phew. When I think of my cancer journey, I haven’t ever felt I was on the verge of death, but I suspect if I hadn’t felt that lump in my breast I would be writing a very different story in a few years.

Maybe I need to use the word survivor as a verb for now, and when I am finished with treatment and my oncologist says, “You are cancer-free!” I can switch to using it as a noun. That might work. “I am surviving this breast cancer journey one day at a time,” and then in a few months I can say, “I am a breast cancer survivor!” I wonder if there is a switch that happens internally and if I’ll actually feel like a survivor as I say those words. Because right now I don’t. Some days I can barely make it through. My psychologist suggests that I need to accept the diagnosis in order to move forward. Perhaps that’s true and it’s the answer to all of this confusion and loss of identity.

A friend asked me this question: “If you were in a plane crash and only came out of it with a broken bone, would you be a survivor?” I said yes. She then said, “You don’t need to be mutilated to be a plane crash survivor, do you?” I answered no. She responded with, “What you have endured is unimaginable, so why don’t you see yourself as a breast cancer survivor?” After much thought and soul searching, the answer is this: If I accept being a survivor, then it means I have to fully accept the breast cancer diagnosis and all the fear and uncertainty it brings with it. I am not sure I am ready to do that. It’s just too much.

With its bold and frightening definition, cancer deserves the word survivor as part of its vernacular. It is a terrible disease that can rob you of your existence. For the rest of my life, I will constantly wonder if my cancer will return. How can I not? I haven’t even lived half my life yet. Surviving the fear of what lies ahead is going to be the real battle. I only had cancer for two months before it was surgically removed. I have recovered longer than I have known I had cancer. Sure, it was growing in me for years possibly but I was none the wiser and life was good. Don’t get me wrong, I am very grateful that after a night of delicious red wine and Wii Dance Party with friends I found that lump the next morning in the shower. I am one of the lucky ones that discovered it early. The odds are very much in my favour and chemo gives me the added insurance of a long and healthy life. I just need to believe in my curable outlook and not allow the doubt to creep in and take hold. Unfortunately it’s not that easy.

In the middle of the night, when the weight of all of this crushes my chest and steals my breath, I beg to be a survivor. I want desperately to believe that I will overcome this and live to a very old age. I want to carry that survivorship badge of honour that so many others do. I want my friends to join me in a half-marathon run wearing matching t-shirts that say “Aly kicked breast cancer’s ass”.

So as I continue to work on the transition from verb to noun, I look forward to the moment when I can proudly say to a stranger, like the woman who told me about her husband, “I am a breast cancer survivor. Do you want to hear my story?”