Who is a cancer survivor? What's in a name?

Cobie Whitten

The National Cancer Institute, along with many other health organizations, define a Cancer Survivor as anyone diagnosed with cancer – from the moment of diagnosis until the end of life (and that end could happen years after diagnosis and be caused by something besides cancer). In addition, The National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship (NCCS) has expanded the term to include family, friends and caregivers.

Survivorship is a popular term now in the cancer community. Yellow bracelets scream LIVESTRONG, event participants refresh at Survivors’ Villages at Susan G. Komen races, and there are even medical journals focused solely on survivorship issues.

Twelve million Americans alive today have been diagnosed with cancer, and those numbers are increasing each year due to:

  • Earlier diagnosis through screening
  • More effective treatment
  • Prevention of secondary disease and disease recurrence
  • Decreases in mortality from other causes

There are many definitions of the word survivor, including:

  • One who lives through an affliction
  • To carry on despite hardships or trauma
  • To remain alive or in existence

It turns out that the term cancer survivor evokes a wide range of reactions, similar to the reactions towards battle and war metaphors (i.e., fighting cancer or battling the disease) when describing cancer. How can one label describe everyone diagnosed with cancer, from those with early stage disease who are treated and may be considered cured to those in hospice care at the last stages of life? Some argue it cannot and that we need to find better, more descriptive and accurate terms. Others embrace the title of survivor and fully identify with it.

My feeling is that you can welcome or reject the label. As someone who has worked with cancer patients and their families for 30 years, I am just thrilled that researchers, clinicians and finding agencies are FINALLY paying attention to all the challenges that accompany a diagnosis of and treatment for cancer.

What are your thoughts? How do you feel about the term "cancer survivor?" 

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