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Defining a word that’s hard to define

by Roger and Kathy Cawthon

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How do you define a survivor? We’ve heard responses ranging from “You are a survivor from the instant a tumor begins to form” to “You are a survivor as soon as all of your treatments are over” to “You are a survivor as soon as the tumor is surgically removed.”

While these definitions may serve for some, they are not broad enough to include all cancer survivors because they assume all cancers are the same in that there is a tumor (sometimes there isn’t), in that there is surgery (sometimes there isn’t), and that there is a finite number of treatments for every person (sometimes there isn’t).

These definitions also assume that there is a set point, a certain number of years out from diagnosis at which you can begin to call yourself a survivor, but that doesn’t work either because some cancers have a low risk of recurrence and are considered beaten after a certain number of years while other cancers have a high risk of recurrence and are never considered beaten. Even though we were diagnosed at the same time twelve years ago, can my husband, Roger, call himself a survivor now because his type of cancer has a low recurrence rate, but I cannot because my type of cancer can recur many years later? What would the magic number of years be? The answer is, of course, that there is no magic number.

“You become a survivor the moment you learn your diagnosis and make up your mind to fight.”

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Kathy and Roger Cawthon

Many people don’t like the word “survivor” for a variety of reasons, most of which reflect a great deal of anger, anxiety, and fear. We would like to offer another – and, we believe, infinitely healthier – way of interpreting the word “survivor.”

Our favorite response – and the definition to which we adhere – is that “You become a survivor the moment you learn your diagnosis and make up your mind to fight.”

The word “survivor” is about being a warrior, a fighter who is going to go the distance and do whatever it takes to give himself the best odds of beating the disease. Think about it. Being a survivor is an attitude, a state of mind.

If achieving this attitude is difficult for you, try using a technique called “creative visualization” to help yourself achieve this state of mind. Take a few minutes to breathe deeply and focus on relaxing all the muscles of your body. Then close your eyes and form a mental picture of yourself clothed in armor, chest out, head held high, ready to march into battle. Hold the image for as long as you can, but for at least three to five minutes. As you practice this technique, watch your warrior-self actually go into battle against your disease and defeat your disease every time. Practice this visualization at least twice a day, working your way up to holding the image for at least ten minutes. Don’t worry or get frustrated if your mind wanders or the image gets fuzzy. Just gently bring the image back to mind and hold it for as long as you can.

Be a fighter. Have a warrior mentality. That’s what we believe defines a survivor.

Think about this, too. If you don’t like to be called a survivor, what are the options? Patient? Invalid? Victim? We don’t know about you, but we’ll take “survivor” any day.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Kathy Cawthon and her husband, Roger, are 12-year cancer survivors. They offer free online support to other survivors and caregivers through their Web sites and The Survivor Movie.

Excerpted with permission from The Cancer Crusade’s Little Book of Hope & Humor by Roger and Kathy Cawthon, copyright © 2007 by Roger and Kathy Cawthon.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2008.