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"Survivor" and the Rhetoric of Cancer
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I took note, while listening to the KHSU stream the afternoon of December 4, that the suggestions for alternatives to “survivor” veered toward militaristic metaphors. How one conceptualizes a cancer diagnosis is of course intensely personal, but the topic is not exactly unknown and seems to have gone unplumbed.

The “war” metaphor in common parlance traces back to Nixon. The “on cancer” part is meaningless, as there is no single disease. A continuing medical education survey (including Sontag reference) can be found here. A more targeted entry in the literature is to be had here.

Finally, a personal and hostile take has been offered at McSweeney’s.


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This is an interesting conversation. After many surgeries and a solution that is working, so far, a suggestion is “veteran.” I’m not sure that we ever “beat” cancer. If “survivor” helps for some, that is fine; whatever it takes to deal with it makes sense. 

Bob Bridges
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Since the subject has come up, it sounds curmudgeonly to cavil but I have a problem with using the word “hero” in this context.  One may well admire the spirit of the cancer victim, the gusto with which he hangs on to life and maintains a good attitude.  But “heroic” seems to me to dilute still further the proper use of words.  If it’s only going to mean, from now on, a person we think admirable in some way, then don’t we already have plenty of words for that?

It’s gone even further:  Now, because “hero” is so overused, people have to say “true hero” to make the distinction clear—but of course only a week or two intervened until that, too, was applied to people who are simply admirable.  Sigh.

Fort Worth, TX
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I totally agree, Bob.  I usually do not fight a change in language or meaning of words, but if this change becomes permanent it will leave true heroes (I don’t know how else to say it.) without a word to describe them.

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They’ve been using “survivor” in connection with abuse, especially child sexual abuse, since the 1980s or before.

The idea is that once you start to heal, you’re no longer a victim; you’ve taken ownership of your life once again, and you’re on the road to becoming human again.  Survivors of abuse tend to blame themselves, devalue themselves;;, that’s not entirely true. At some point, some people in 12-step programs graduate from that as an identity. While you’re working hard to recover, it’s useful to think of yourself as a survivor, but eventually, you start describing yourself a a carpenter, a welder, a gardener a golfer, or  a grandfather.

And I imagine  the same is true of those who formerly had cancer. You stop being a cancer patient, you stop being someone who has cancer, you’re someone who used to have it, and lived through it.

In my book, a hero is someone who knowingly risks his health, wealth or safety to help someone in peril, without any duty or compulsion to help.  A lifeguard isn’t a hero for rescuing someone from drowning, but  a nurse would be.  A nurse wouldn’t be a hero for compressing a wound in an HIV patient, but a teamster would be.  And someone who escaped the World Trade Center is a victim if that’s all they’ve done.


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A most absurd of warlike metaphors is that that accuses your own beleaguered heart.

Obviously many cultures don’t care for it: (No matter how brief or inaccurate the survey below.)  

(I am sure someone is saying wait till you have one yourself.  It’s still absurd.)


Spanish          Attack

French            Crisis

German          Infarct

Danish           Attack


Swedish         Infarct

Norwegian     Infarct

Icelandic        Seizure

Finish             Situation


Armenian       Attack

Russian          Attack

Polish             Attack

Hungarian      Attack


Arabic:           Fit

Persian          Infarct

Hebrew          Attack


Somali           Stop

Swahili           Shock

Zulu               Disease


Hindi             Fit

Chinese          Exhaustion

Vietnamese    Hurt

Thai               Failure

Japanese        Attack

Korean            Paralysis

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