Saturday, February 22, 2014

Please don't call me a cancer "survivor"

It embarrasses me every time. Some acquaintance of my husband shares a cancer diagnosis -- their own or that of a loved one -- and he tells them, "You know, Sue had cancer."

I did, although it's not as bad as it sounds. I had papillary thyroid cancer five years ago. At my age, papillary cell thyca has a 99%+ 20-year survival rate. You read that right: 99%+. There was no chemotherapy and subsequent nausea. I kept my hair. No external beam radiation. I faced only one surgery.

Most importantly, I was never in real fear for my life.

The surgeon took out my thyroid. A month later, I swallowed a radioactive iodine pill to take out any stray cells. It came with a plastic bag in case I threw it up* and a set of instructions to avoid zapping anyone else while isotopes oozed out the pores for a few days.

Best sick day excuse for work ever: "I can't come in. I'm radioactive."

Yes, there were risks. I could have lost my vocal cord nerves or parathyroids. No surgery is 100% safe. Still, it wasn't terrible. I have a scar you can barely see and a high daily dose of thyroid replacement hormone. I'm on year 5 of a 20-year post-treatment monitoring plan.

I don't speak for others who've had thyca, and you should never tell someone who's had it that they had the "good" cancer. That's like telling them you gave them the "good" punch in the mouth because you only split their lip and didn't knock out any teeth. It still sucks. It just sucks less. 

But I cringe that I am sometimes thought of as a "cancer survivor." When I look up the word "survivor," it says "one who survived, especially a person remaining alive after others have died" (emph. mine). While I might have been one of the tiny minority for whom thyca is deadly, the odds were against it. There were no discussions of 5-year death rates in the double digits. I have no reason now to believe it will recur.

Calling me a survivor gives me too much credit. It implies a 15-round slugfest instead of a first-round knockout punch. It implies hardships I didn't endure, depths of bravery I didn't have to plumb. I don't want to compare your pitched battle with my minor skirmish, to be the type who shows up to a funeral and says to the heartbroken widow, "I know exactly how you feel. I had a dog die once."**

I don't know exactly how you feel. Thyca wasn't the most fun I'd ever had at a rodeo, but it's not the worst I've ever dealt with. So please, don't call me a survivor. My heart goes out to those who are fighting steeper odds. They are the survivors.

* So I could take it back to them to retrieve -- talk about a bad day at the office.

** Happened to a friend of mind. No lie.

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