What Is a Healthy Survivor?
Survivor: From the time of discovery and for the balance of life, an individual diagnosed with cancer is a survivor. [National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship - 1986]
Healthy Survivor: A survivor who gets good care and lives as fully as possible is a Healthy Survivor.
[Wendy S. Harpham, MD - 1992]
All my hopes, expectations, attitudes and actions have never been able to change the fact that I developed cancer and had become a cancer patient. What I have been able to do from the moment of diagnosis on has been to take steps that help make my life the best it could possibly be under the circumstances.
All these years, I’ve been searching for insights and cultivating tools to help me get good care and live as fully as possible. As quickly as I’ve found something that helps, I’ve used writing and speaking to share the insight or tool, hoping it might help other patients find and develop tools that help them.
The Journey from Cancer Patient to Healthy Survivor
Days after my original cancer diagnosis in 1990, I received a pamphlet from the National Coalition of Cancer Survivorship that introduced me to the term survivor. At the time,a growing group of individuals who were living with—or after—cancer were arguing on the national stage about whether they should be called “survivors,” “thrivers,” “activists” or another label.
As a physician-patient, for me it was a practical issue:“The accepted term in the oncology literature is survivor, so survivor it is. From now on, I’m a survivor.”
I was…I am…I will be forever grateful for this term, survivor, that kept me from ever feeling like a victim—the most commonly used term for patients with cancer when I was diagnosed.
But as I rode the ups-and-downs of my treatment and then recovery, it bothered me that survivor said nothing about my role in my care or my quality of life. I was a survivor whether I was receiving optimal therapy from highly qualified physicians or swigging snake oil bought online from charlatans. I was a survivor whether I was reveling with gratitude for each and every day or paralyzed by uncontrolled pain or fear of recurrence.</p> <p>The irrepressible internist in me nudged the writer in me to find a medically appropriate adjective to clarify what kind of survivor I was trying to be. One word popped out: healthy.</p> <p>Healthy Survivor. The new phrase felt comfortable. Familiar. People talked about healthy parenting and healthy financial investing. Why couldn't I talk about Healthy Survivorship?</p> <p>
You can be a Healthy Survivor no matter how sick you are or how worrisome your prognosis. Why? Because Healthy Survivorship is not dependent on biology or medical outcome. Rather, it’s about making your life the best it can be, and then accepting what is. It’s about embracing your life—whatever the circumstances—and finding some happiness today while hoping for a better tomorrow.
Pah-tay-to, pah-tah-to. What's the big deal about what cancer patients call themselves? Everything. Labels speak volumes about who we are and how we see ourselves after a cancer diagnosis. So it hit me like a rotten tomato when a longtime friend and co-survivor hinted that “Healthy Survivor” was just one more name thrown into the survivorship ring.
When faced with a medical challenge, each of you has to forge and follow your own unique path to Healthy Survivorship—one that takes into account your strengths and weaknesses as well as the challenges you face, the losses you suffer and the uncertainty of life after illness or injury.
There is life after serious illness or injury. As a Healthy Survivor, make it a good life.