Triumph of Ambivalence
Breast cancer didn’t beat me. But the term survivor just doesn’t feel right.
In June 1999, a new bride, I moved to Arlington to attend graduate school at Georgetown University. My husband was starting a postdoctoral fellowship at the FDA, and I had chosen the Tumor Biology Training Program at the Lombardi Cancer Center at Georgetown. Lombardi has a nationally re-nowned breast cancer program, and I soon settled into a lab doing breast cancer research alongside many talented scientists.
Five years later, a few months after the birth of my first child, I defended my dissertation, received a Ph.D. for my work (in the area of the progression of breast cancer to hormone independence) and left science to stay home with my new baby girl in our home in Westover.
By the time I put that little girl on the bus for her first day of third grade (along with her younger brother, who was starting kindergarten) I was eager to get back into science. Within a month, I found myself immersed once again in all things breast cancer—though not at all as I had expected. Days after finding a lump in my left breast, I was sitting in a surgeon’s office at the Reinsch Pierce Family Center for Breast Health at Virginia Hospital Center. By the end of the week, I had been diagnosed with invasive breast cancer.
When my surgeon called to say that my biopsy revealed an abnormality, my training wouldn’t let her leave it at that. I insisted that she tell me the nature of the abnormality right then, on the phone. Invasive breast cancer. I pressed for more details. I wanted to know exactly what the pathologist said. Triple negative. And then, I knew. Without looking online, without reading any blogs or breast cancer forums, I knew. Triple negative breast cancer is bad. I would need hard-core chemo and a double mastectomy for sure.
In our first meeting, my oncologist asked what I’d done before staying home with my kids, and I so appreciated the respect she gave me and my background. Recognizing what I already knew, she told me that triple negative breast cancer is very aggressive. But, when caught early like mine, she said encouragingly, it is very treatable. It would be a hard year, but then it would be over.
She was right. It’s been a year since that meeting, I am cancer free, and I have completed the last of my reconstructive surgeries. It was a year, and now it’s over.
And so now I am entering the third stage of my association with breast cancer. Researcher. Patient. Now survivor.
That’s a hard word for me. There are some benefits to using it, in that everyone knows what it means: I had breast cancer and I didn’t die. It means that at large-scale breast cancer races and fundraisers I get the pink shirt and the cool swag bag. It gains me access into a whole new community filled with vibrant, beautiful, compassionate women of all ages.
But I worry about using the term survivor. Admittedly, I’ll probably throw it out there when absolutely necessary (I love me some swag bags!), but I’m not sure I’ll refer to myself as a breast cancer survivor much. I survived, but not because I’m stronger or made wiser decisions or am more favored by God. I worry that to call myself a survivor somehow implies that those women who have gone before me—the ones who have succumbed to breast cancer—were weaker. In fact, those ladies likely possessed more strength than I could ever imagine.
To survive means that you’ve gotten through something hard, and I suppose that fits. But it’s not a flag that I wave triumphantly.
Many survivors—survivors of war, natural disasters, acts of terror—feel guilt about having survived. Long before the doctors pronounced me cancer free, I felt that guilt. Throughout all of my chemo treatments, I was not nauseated. Not a single time. I had no sores in my mouth, my fingernails were in good shape, and my fatigue never reached the level of debilitating. Frankly, for the most part, I felt great.
And at the same time, I felt horrible. Horrible for the women who were nauseated, completely worn down, unable to eat. I wanted to have a great attitude all the time, but sometimes I felt bad just for being able to have such a good attitude.
Never was that guilt more acute than when I sat, wig-clad, at my good friend’s funeral. It’s not fair that she has to be labeled “breast cancer victim” while I get to wear the badge “survivor.” She was a strong, loving, godly woman. I’m not better than her. I just have a different story.
So you probably won’t hear me calling myself a breast cancer survivor. It has nothing to do with wanting to hide the fact that I’ve had breast cancer. You won’t hurt my feelings by using the term, but that’s just not how I want to define myself. I would prefer that you think of me as a wife, a mother, a daughter, a friend.
Think of me as a researcher, a writer, an advocate.
We’ve all survived something tough. We’re all survivors.