I Don’t Want to be a “Warrior”: On the Aggressive Terminology Used in Cancer Treatment

I don't want to be a "warrior"

What's in a name?

Trust me, I get it: cancer is ruthless. Treatment takes a lot out of you…and the goal, quite literally, is killing cells (both healthy and malignant). Emphasis on killing. And I'm not minimizing any of that.

But I don’t want to be a “warrior.” I don’t want to be “in the fight of my life.” I don’t even want to be called a “survivor*.” Why? Because they are all so aggressive. So angry. So…toxically masculine. They are exhausting.

*A problematic blanket term, that can even apply to family members and those who are living with cancer, but who are not expected to go into remission. But that's a story for another day. 

Of course cancer is serious. Of course cancer is scary. Of course you can be angry (and of course I was). Of course I want to live. I want to heal. I want to thrive.

You have agency. Period.

But I want to do it in a way that doesn’t sound like cancer had me pinned down, about to slit my throat - and the only reason I am still here is because of some feat of last-ditch adrenaline that allowed me to jump to my feet and slay the evil dragon. I don’t want to be called a survivor, like I was dumped on a deserted island with no food, or water, or support, and had to battle the elements just to emerge sunburned and starved, dragging myself over jagged rocks to a life preserver.

You can be soft AND strong.

You can find peace AND be powerful.

You can acknowledge complex realities AND choose how you go forward.

I want to acknowledge the dance between fear and certainty. I want to acknowledge the brilliance and dedication of my doctors, the doctors before them, and the researchers and lab technicians who have dedicated their lives to studying and treating cancer. I want to marvel at how chemotherapy kills cancer cells - and how the body repairs itself, when that same chemo also kills healthy cells. I want to appreciate how surgeons remove, preserve, and repurpose tissue (of course, different tissues for each case). I want to be in awe of the machines that deliver radiation in a way that is so precise, it takes a team to develop your treatment plan, which is mapped out with the utmost precision on your body and adjusted meticulously to be beamed at specific angles. I want to acknowledge the tremendous support I received: from my family and friends, to infusion nurses and port nurses, to the chaplain on the infusion floor, to my hairdresser who helped me shave my head and trim my wig. I want to recognize that cancer treatment is never cookie cutter. That even similar experiences can be very different. That yes, it takes a toll on every part of you…but also it teaches you things about yourself you would never have known, otherwise. That even in the face of all that is happening, resilience is possible.

I even want to be able to recognize how complex cancer is. How it changes, how it grows, how it creates its own blood source. How it adapts. Of course I hate it. And of course I wish it was simple and straightforward to eliminate. But even with that, cancer is quite the subject…although I’m more than happy to think that *without* hosting it within my body.

Yes, cancer is hard, and impossible, and horrible. But it is also fascinating, and complex, and life changing (in both good and bad ways). But to me, the words we typically use to discuss those who have gone through cancer treatment don’t really honor the complexity of any of it.

Honoring all of you

I’m not just a "survivor." It’s not as simple as living or dying. I’m not a warrior. I needed all of my strength just to go through treatment; I didn’t have any left to pound my chest and scream. I didn’t vanquish the dragon - no one knows for sure if it will or won’t be back. I’m not mutilated. I have scars: my body is dramatically different than it was. But to call me mutilated (another commonly-used term, often referring to a post-mastectomy chest) insinuates there is no beauty or benefit in this new form: and that is simply not true.

I am a cancer thriver: I am choosing to thrive, despite being diagnosed and going through treatment. I’m choosing to give it my best, every single day (and “best” can, did, and does look different every day). I’m choosing to minimize the risk of recurrence, while also living my life. I’m choosing to not let cancer take away any more than it has…and to receive and appreciate all of the positive that came with it, too.

Despite my diagnosis, I moved forward.

Despite difficult treatment, I kept going.

Despite it being an impossible situation, I kept going.

Despite the fear, anger, sadness, and disbelief, I experienced love, support, hope, gratitude, and more.

Despite having completed active treatment, the journey is never really over.

You can make a lot of choices during your cancer treatment. Some people, I’m sure, resonate with being a survivor, or a warrior, and get comfort from them. And that is fabulous.

I want more. I am a cancer thriver. And I hope if you are reading this during or after a cancer diagnosis, you will be, too.