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Friday, July 5, 2013

The Titanic – A Cancer SurvivorSHIP metaphor –(yuck, yuck)

The Titanic, as most readers will know, was a British passenger liner that sunk on its maiden voyage after colliding with an iceberg in the northern Atlantic Ocean. The craft carried 2,224 people, including the crew. My guess is that none of the people who boarded that ship on April 10, 1912 doubted that they would survive the trip. Some of them did, but many, sadly, did not.

Now, using the ‘logic’ that we use to call people cancer ‘survivors’ (anyone who has ever been diagnosed with cancer), all of the 2,224 people on the Titanic were survivors. They boarded the Titanic. They stayed on the boat for a period of time. By today’s standards, they could have all owned and proudly sported t-shirts that read “I am a Titanic Survivor!”


For the sake of honest communication, the term ‘survivor’ should to be applied to people who go through something, live through the during part of the something, and then continue to live after that something is over.  The term may be accurately applied to people diagnosed with early stage cancer, although I think many of them will never feel like their trip on the cancer Titanic is over.

For me to say, “I’m a lung cancer survivor!” is a complete misnomer. I’m surviving cancer, but can I survive cancer? Surviving and survivor mean different things. One is for the present. One is for the future.

Popular culture encourages our say-it-loud, say-it-proud pronouncement of cancer survivorship and unfortunately, American economy enjoys great boons from the cancer survivor ‘market’. Think of all of those wrist bands, survivor t-shirts, breast cancer walks with its accompanying push to buy, buy, buy (“The more of us who walk, the more of us survive!). And let’s not forget the month of October when you can buy just about anything in pink - from yogurt, to Barbie dolls, to footballs, to electric mixers. And cancer survivorship marketing must work very well, as it has now been discovered that some companies color their products pink so that people will buy them thinking they’re supporting those with cancer (I use the breast cancer example because of its prevalence.  Other cancer types are catching up).

So for those of you who have actually survived your cancer, like The Unsinkable Molly Brown survived the Titanic, I am nothing but happy for you. For those of you who believe that your story will more likely resemble that of the 1514 people who did not survive, you’re not alone.


Titanic Memorial in DC



  1. its hard not to be pessimistic...

    1. Hey Mel - I think that the cancer 'community' has gotten so hyper-positive that it seems that if you express anything other than that it is defined as pessimism. If you look at a (nearly) hopeless situation and feel not hopeful, are you being pessimistic? Or does reality just sometimes make us feel not hopeful?

      I don't know how you feel about this, but I appreciate your comments. They help me feel a little validated.

  2. Well said, Ruth! I first heard the word 'survivor' a week after surgery for my Stage 1 nodule ... trying to type this during Round 2, Day 6 of chemotherapy for Stage 4 is a different universe

    1. I'm so glad to hear you say this. I've suspected that being a survivor with an early stage of cancer was a horse of a different color than being a 'survivor' with late stage cancer.

      Hope the chemo's not too rough.

  3. Hi, Ruth!

    I'm a little late on this, but I've been reading your blog now and then for a long while and I have always wanted to comment and say hello. Since I have some particularly strong feelings regarding this subject, I figure now is as good a time as any.

    When my mom was sick, I had an endless internal struggle between positivity and pessimism. I felt like I was giving up on my mom by silently accepting that she was dying. I felt like the expectation is to never stop believing in or hoping for or seeking a cure, and so I tried to keep my hope from wavering. But I also needed to prepare myself for what was to come, and I was wracked with guilt for doing so. I didn't want her to think I was giving up or just accepting her fate. So I lied to her and everyone else, as we all sometimes do for the sake of those we love, and it was painful and frustrating and I became so angry with myself over my confused feelings and emotions.

    The general societal focus on positivity and survivorship measured daily definitely played a role in my confusion and angst.

    All of that being said, I think there is a time and a place for each: having hope and encouragement to get through the hurdles of treatment and continued diagnoses; talking openly about reality and understanding likelihoods and outcomes; and breaking down once in a while when you're fresh out of warm and fuzzy thoughts.

    Excuse the wordiness, this is just something that has plagued me for a long time.

    I just want you to know that I think about you and your journey often. I keep fond memories of spending time with you and your daughters close to my heart. I don't know if I have ever thanked you for being a positive influence and model of strength and perseverance - then, now, and always.

    Thank you, Ruth.


    1. Dearest Tegan,

      I think your thoughts about balance are dead on. There are times and places for all thoughts and feelings and it's good to be open to all of it.

      I was terribly sorry to hear about your mother. I thought she was a really neat lady and I remember her fondly. I think you reflect many of her good attributes and I'm sure she was proud to bursting at your accomplishments.

      Thank you for your kind words. It's always nice to think that maybe you've made positive contributions to this world, whether you realize it or not. I so appreciate your support of me and the girls.

      Much love.