Survivor Defined

After John Bartimole experienced early-stage esophageal cancer in 2006, he didn’t consider himself a cancer survivor. Both of his parents died from cancer. One sister was battling breast cancer and another sister was taking prophylactic medication because of her high risk of breast cancer. When he went to medical appointments, he saw other cancer patients struggling just to live. He figured his own good prognosis and minimal treatment with photodynamic therapy didn’t warrant the badge of survivorship.

“I considered this not as serious,” says Bartimole, who now has only periodic endoscopies to monitor his condition. “These people went through hell and back. While I was very sick after treatment and had a few weeks of not being able to go into sunlight, it seemed like a walk in the park in comparison.”

It’s not uncommon for people who’ve dealt with cancer to question their identity and how they fit into the community of cancer survivorship.

“People have taken the word 'survivor' and debated it,” says Ellen Stovall, senior health policy adviser for the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship (NCCS) and herself a survivor of Hodgkin lymphoma and breast cancer. “A lot of people are uncomfortable with the word.”

It was one of the founders of NCCS, Fitzhugh Mullan, who first defined “survivor” in a 1985 article published in The New England Journal of Medicine, bringing the concept into both medical and mainstream conversations. In essence, a person was considered a survivor from diagnosis to death.

“The definition hasn’t changed through the years as much as the community has responded to the definition,” Stovall says. Not all cancer organizations have adopted the definition espoused by the NCCS, which also considers family and other loved ones of the patient as survivors.

[Facebook Discussion: How do you define "survivor?"]

Melissa Collins of Royal Oak, Mich., also questioned her survivorship status after she received a diagnosis of early-stage melanoma at age 40, undergoing a wide-excision biopsy and lymph node removal in April 2011. Although the procedure left a 7-inch scar on her right leg, she required no chemotherapy or radiation and soon resumed her normal life. It was the emotional toll and feeling uncertain about her future that impacted Collins the most.

But to both herself and others, she was far removed, at least on the surface, from the stereotypical image of a sick, weak and bald cancer patient.

[Read "Surviving 'Survivor' Stereotypes"]

In fact, that stereotypical image of cancer patients as victims often gives way to strong, empowered cancer survivors. And with advancing knowledge and new treatment options available now, many people may not present the classic signs of someone going through cancer treatment. Some patients may choose to continue working. They may take a pill with minimal side effects instead of receiving toxic chemotherapy infusions, or have a cancer that needs only watchful waiting. But with this changing landscape, patients, such as Collins, sometimes wonder if they deserve to be called a survivor.

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