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Why I’d Rather You Didn’t Label Me a ‘Survivor’

By Tiffany Dyba

dont-call-me-a-survivor

I spent many of my teenage years listening to Destiny’s Child’s ‘Survivor’ out with my friends. Screaming the lyrics at the top of my lungs. Thinking about my boyfriend pissing me off, but feeling extra powerful by having an incredibly cathartic moment with that song, and those lyrics. 

“I’m a survivor, I’m not gon’ give up.” Empowering stuff. 

Did Beyoncé realize what she was doing? Did she realize that she was making surviving seem easy? Uncomplicated? And most importantly, definitive? 

Before the Beyhive comes at me fast and furious, let me state that I am a diehard Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child fan. I mean, obsessed. 

I am also what many websites and statistics would call a breast cancer survivor. 

By definition, the word ‘survivor’ means to continue to live after an accident, illness, or war. To me, this definition is ambiguous. I will spare you the downward spiral into existential thoughts circling the notion of “what is really living?” However, this is the point I will make very clear: 

I don’t feel like I have survived anything. 

According to the above definition, I am technically a survivor. Technically. What that definition does not capture is the uncertainty of surviving. I am still trying to figure out how to survive the uncertainty I have, let alone the disease. 

I completed my active treatment in December 2018, which included eight cycles of chemotherapy and five weeks of daily radiation. After my final radiation treatment on December 12, I proudly rang the bell at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Ringing the bell is a ritual that signifies the end of treatment and the beginning of your next chapter into cancer-free life. I let out a deep breath ready to begin this whole “survivor” thing. 

I had a clean bill of health. My doctors are almost too casual about the thought that my cancer could return. They are all very optimistic that this was a blip on my radar, and I will be able to resume life as if nothing happened. And while I do appreciate their level of confidence, I somehow can’t convince my mind that this won’t come back with a vengeance. 

And just when I have finally reasoned myself out of another irrational thought about a headache I have or a bump on my leg, I see a mug in my kitchen with the word ‘survivor’ on it. I suddenly have a pit in my stomach. My heart sinks. 

why did the word ‘survivor’ become a trigger?

It feels like a jinx. It feels too good to be true. It feels phony. 

When I wake up with hot flashes from the medication I need to take for the next ten years, I don’t feel like I have survived anything. When I can’t stop Googling stats on recurrence rates in early stage breast cancer patients, I don’t feel like I have survived anything. When I am paralyzed by anxiety because of a headache or bruise or papercut, I don’t feel like I have survived anything. When some days I can’t stop myself from sobbing uncontrollably, I don’t feel like I have survived anything. When I still can’t eat my favorite Mexican place because it tastes like chemo to me, I don’t feel like I have survived anything. When I forget how to spell certain words or what I was calling my mom to ask her (affectionately known as “chemo brain”), I don’t feel like I have survived anything. 

You get the point. 

Survivorship is tough. It is a tricky beast. And while I don’t call myself a survivor, I am completely happy with the term ‘content warrior.’ I have spent a lot of time speaking to people in the cancer community. I have spoken to people of many different ages and stages. I am not alone when it comes to the word ‘survivor’ and the triggers it brings. 

If you are struggling with a diagnosis and survivorship, I think it is important to identify with language that works for you. Everyone is different. For me, I am taking it day by day. While not in any known imminent danger, I am still vigilant. Still aware. Still focused. Still a little jaded. Still going to listen to Destiny’s Child. 

Tiffany Dyba is a dedicated Career Coach & Consultant based in New York City. She enjoys helping people recognize their professional calling, while helping them to take risks. Tiffany was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer in March 2018, and has been working to create awareness and advocate for women diagnosed under the age of 40. Tiffany’s blog, C.D.R.E.A.M, has also been featured in TheSkimm. Follow @tiffanydyba for business and personal adventures, and @c.d.r.e.a.m to follow her journey.
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