A Mother and her Two Daughters

16 July 2010

Surviving Cancer

Survive: To remain alive or in existence; to carry on despite hardships or trauma; to persevere.

Survivor: One who lives through affliction; one who outlives another.

In June, when Allyson and Jeff were setting up their Race for the Cure team in St. Louis, Allyson visited the race headquarters to pick up the t-shirts.  As most know, the Komen Race has two t-shirts – one for race participants, and a special shirt for survivors.  Allyson had ordered a t-shirt for me.  The volunteer asked, “Is your mother a survivor?”  Allyson told her not yet, that I was in the middle of chemotherapy and still fighting cancer.  The volunteer replied, “Well that makes her a survivor.”  I think my daughter was happy to hear that term. 

In the cancer community, “survivor” means someone who has received the diagnosis of a potentially fatal form of cancer and is therefore forced to face his or her own mortality.  To be a bit clearer, a cancer patient is defined as a survivor at the time of diagnosis, and remains a survivor until the end of life, no matter what the cause. 

There is far from universal agreement about the term “cancer survivor” – especially by those who have experienced the cancer themselves.  Some object to it, saying they are cured. Others say they are living with cancer. And still others prefer to put cancer behind them, and argue that being called a cancer survivor stigmatizes them. However, no alternative term has emerged, meaning the term “cancer survivor” seems here to stay.

The phrase “survivor” was actually coined in 1985 by Dr. Fitzhugh Mullan in an essay entitled, “The Seasons of Survival: Reflections of a Physician with Cancer.”  This essay was written ten years after the young physician’s own diagnosis with a deadly malignancy. Following the diagnosis he wrote,

“I was, in fact, surviving, struggling physically and mentally with the cancer, the therapy, and the large-scale disruption of my life. Survival, however, was not one condition, but many. It was desperate days of nausea and depression. It was elation at the birth of a daughter in the midst of the treatment. It was the anxiety of waiting for my monthly chest film to be taken and lying awake nights feeling for lymph nodes. … It was survival, an absolutely predictable but ill-defined condition that all cancer patients pass through as they struggle with their illness.” 

In the New England Journal of Medicine, Mullan described what he believed to be the three phases of cancer survivorship, or what he referred to as “the seasons of survival.”  They are (1) acute survivorship (diagnosis and treatment), (2) extended survivorship (post-treatment), and (3) permanent survivorship (long-term survivorship). 

In 2009, Dr. Kenneth Miller, director of the Lance Armstrong Foundation Cancer Survivorship Program, slightly revised Mullan’s definition of the seasons and expanded on the definition by adding another season that follows acute survivorship:

Transitional survivorship:  
The difficult time when celebration is blended with 
worry and loss as a patient pulls away from the treatment team. 

While all of these definitions make sense, seem quite logical.  But I’m convinced that survivorship is more of an attitude to keep on living, celebrating each day, finding all that is good around you, surrounding yourself with people who love you and help create a magic kingdom wherever you are.  It’s a determination to keep fighting, to remain focused on the treatment plan ahead, BUT mixing it all up with a good dose of fun people, life experiences and special moments. 

With surgery on Monday, I plan on spending this weekend living with reckless abandon, as they say.  I’ll ask Tim to drive me to Oppelo, AR, and maybe meet my friend Gerry for one of those luscious cheeseburgers at the Fina gas station.  Maybe I’ll get out a hairbrush (they make great microphones) and sing loudly to Meatloaf’s Paradise by the Dashboard Light (where are you Kim?), or Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody (Kate-are you around?).  Or as my friend Leslie suggests, maybe get on the phone with an old friend with our high school annuals, and read random signatures back and forth.   I might go shopping at the Mexican food store on Baseline Road and ask Anna-Lee and Tim to help me cook up a delicious dinner of Queso Flameado and Enchiladas Verdes . . . and who knows what else.  Maybe a movie, a fresh squeezed lemonade, or a cruise through the bookstore wearing my new false eyelashes.  What else can I come up with? 

Here are some poignant words from my new Senior Paster, Rev. Britt Skarda, in his weekly reflections:  We mortals have a tendency to approach life as a sequence of events, rather than a series of moments.  We schedule our time, set goals and rush toward personal achievement at breakneck speed.  And then, one day we wake up to find it’s all over.  In a deep and profound sense, each of us is in the process of moving—moving from this life to the ultimate life with God.  So, just for today, forget the sequence of events and, instead, enjoy the moment.

Enjoy your weekend.  Don’t just survive – LIVE EVERY MOMENT!   I’m going to live my weekend as if it were a festival or gala.  No weekend should be ordinary, especially this one.  


  1. Life should be lived so vividly and intensely that thoughts of another life, or of a longer life, are not necessary. And it is good to see you doing that. Steve

  2. Janice and I love you girl. We will be praying for you tomorrow. Enjoy that burger and the day, hot but beautiful. A Buffett song about cheeseburgers might be appropiate too.


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