Anne H. Evans: Cancer survival narratives unintentionally hurt families of those who don't make it

July 6, 2014 

By Anne H. Evans

I recently participated in the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer in Chicago. It was a weekend of tears, laughter and sore muscles from walking 39.3 miles to raise money for breast cancer research, treatment and education.

During the closing ceremonies, we celebrated survivors, and I was right there, cheering with thousands of others. My heart filled with happiness for them.

And a pang of jealousy. I wish my mother could have been one of them.

My mom passed away from what doctors presumed was breast cancer on May 6, 2012. She would have been 59 on June 10 this year.

Standing in the sea of light pink T-shirts, pompons and crazy wigs, I cheered as giant checks were presented to various cancer research institutes in the Chicagoland area.

But there was something in the closing ceremonies that really, really bothered me.

As we listened to one survivor's story I felt frustration bubbling up, frustration with what the language of her narrative implied for all of those who haven't survived.

It's the kind of language I've heard many other survivors use.

It's something like, "I decided that I was going to survive. I made up my mind that death wasn't an option. I got through on sheer willpower."

Please, please don't get me wrong. I think attitude is such an important part of facing any difficult obstacle. But, when it comes to cancer, attitude isn't everything. It's simply not.

Sometimes, you can make up your mind that you're going to survive. You can work as hard as you possibly can to fight the deadly growths invading your body. You might go through treatments for years, like my mom did. And you might say and believe that death isn't an option. You'll outwork it. You'll pray for healing. You'll keep a positive attitude. You'll dip into the power that is in the human will to survive.

But guess what?

Not everyone, even with an attitude like that, even with a strong faith, is going to survive.

My mom's death was not the result of her not finding or having the will to survive.

She wanted to be here to see her three children grow up. She wanted to watch her youngest son graduate from high school, her daughter graduate from college, her eldest son purchase his first house. She wanted to grow old with her husband.

She wanted to celebrate all of the milestones that a 56-year-old would normally have to look forward to. She wanted to be a grandmother.

Her death had nothing to do with willpower. She didn't choose to die.

I completely understand when people talk about their will, their determination to survive. They're trying to articulate just how much work it took to stay positive, to keep fighting. I'm not angry with those who have used this narrative.

But a nod to the lack of complete control over a cancer patient's ultimate outcome, despite willpower, despite attitude, despite everything, can change how a survivor's narrative impacts others.

It can make that narrative stronger. It can bring us all closer together.

"I tried my best to keep a positive attitude. I worked, day in and day out, to fight cancer. And I've been one of the lucky ones who has survived." Something like that. It leaves room for the families of those who didn't survive to celebrate without seeming to say their loved one should have worked harder or had a stronger will to survive.

I have seen how tough the road through treatment can be. I was often brought to tears by my mother's optimism and her ability to keep on smiling. Getting through cancer is worth shouting from the rooftops.

I just hope we can shift the language of the survivor narrative to be considerate of the impact of those stories on the families of those who were not as lucky.

Anne Evans, Lexington, is a graduate student at the Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University.

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service