There is certain language that has developed around ideas of disease and the culture of those afflicted with varying maladies. Most notably, there is the label prescribed by the individual, how they choose to view their situation and define it for themselves, and the way others see us. For the better, the focus is on the positive, giving hope to the afflicted instead of assigning them more dire terminology. The word we hear most often today is, “survivor”. We don’t speak of the diseased as “patients”, “diseased”, or “cancerous”. We focus on the potential, the hopeful.
But I don’t…sort of. I have a bib from the Team In Training century ride I did last summer, a special bib given to those of us in the group dealing with any form of cancer directly, or who have overcome the disease. “Survivor” is plastered across the top. I didn’t know I was getting that bib during the pre-ride dinner and I was both flattered (for the attention) and a little uncomfortable with the definition. I try to choose my words well. I don’t like to exaggerate, romanticize or sensationalize, and I certainly don’t like to cheapen others experiences with my words, which is why I felt uncomfortable being recognized as a “survivor”. I may be SURVIVING cancer, but I haven’t survived it. I’m not a survivor. I reserve the term survivor for those who have outlived their cancering process, or who have at least outlived it once.
I don’t mean to take away from any one else’s experience, but I feel most comfortable placing myself in other categories, with other definitions. I am not a survivor. I am, however, a “thriver”. I choose to keep pushing against the force that cancer has pushed onto me, managing through the painful and problematic effects of chemo treatments for experiences as fulfilling as I can find. I did this before cancer and I have yet to find good reason to stop now. Nor do I feel the need to internalize the suffering cancer patient identity, but am compelled to thrive through this experience…if I’m forced to choose. But it’s not always so positive and romantic. Sometimes, like tonight, I skip the run to instead nurse my feet…pop all the blisters and just lie in bed if I need to get specific. That’s hardly a moment of thriving.
Lately, I’ve come to accept the neutral ground of terms once again, where I don’t feel pressured to live up to any lofty presentation of my life or succumb to lesser perspectives. Right now, if we’re talking about terms…I’m simply a “cancer patient”. I say this because it is the absolute reality. I am a patient, often. I am a patient when I get chemo infusions every few weeks. I’m a patient every morning I take my chemo pills. I’m a patient when I go in for my CT scans. And I am a patient when I enter the hospital for surgery in August. Being a patient is a prominent part of my life.
I’m also patient. I’ll wait this damn thing out until one of us cracks.
But, without exaggeration, I often feel like a cancer patient more than anything else. And that’s how I choose to define myself to others, because I have yet to survive cancer, and I’m not always thriving, but I am continuously and consistently dealing with cancer, in the long, drawn out middle of it, it seems. I’m not pre-cancer and I’m not post-cancer. The definitions for those individuals have been established and you all can keep them. I’m just not there anymore…or yet.
But I’m also not JUST a cancer patient.
The header at the top of this blog classifies it, in part, as “competitive distance running”. And all those are sort of true. I can honestly say I do still run distance. Hell, this weekend I’m scheduled to do 10 trail miles at the Run With The Foxes race (thanks for the comp Robert!), and I won’t be walking it. I’ll be running. Now, the competitive part is a little more precarious. We could romanticize the whole affair and say cancer is my competitor right now, but I’ve moved away from the idea of being in a “battle” with cancer or “fighting”, or any other such terminology. And when I’m not training, it’s hard to say I’m competing for anything…but I keep it in the title anyways, because I’m stubborn for one, but also because remembering how I defined myself before the mess of this past year helps me look ahead to when I can solidly stake that claim again.
At one point I thought about taking out the “competitive” label and adding a new qualifier, something about dealing with cancer, you know, just to give a heads up as to the blog content. But, as defining as this period is in my life, I want to ultimately view it as episodic, like a running injury, something that is recognized and then passes, not something one internalizes, dwells upon and defines themselves by. No runner gets injured, heals and then says, “I’m an injured runner.” We simply experience the adversity of the moment and then move on, always as a “runner”. Matter of fact, we feel the most like runners when we can’t do it, which is probably the most important reason I keep that competitive qualifier in the title. I feel the most competitive now because I’m not able to be. It taunts me.
And that’s ok. Because it keeps me from dwelling on my identity as a “cancer patient”, giving in to it as a small form of giving up. I am a cancer patient due to the reality of my circumstance, but it’s not ALL I am. I tell you, when I’m running through the trails during the first half of my run, it’s like I’ve entered a dream state, and I honestly, genuinely question if I even have cancer. It seems the furthest thing from my physical reality, and the idea of being a defined “cancer patient” seems alien, foreign…laughable.
Ultimately though, that is what I am. A competitive, distance running, cancer patient.
And at some point, if it comes to that, I’ll make the decision whether I want to self-identify as a cancer “survivor”, but I can guarantee you, I’ll never give up my definitions of being “competitive” or as a “runner”…not during cancer or after.
(All this, of course, also goes for being “vegan”)