Cancer survivor, thriver, previver... how we identify ourselves

Oct 10, 2017 | Lisa Stephens, PhD | @lisastephens

Today, there are close to 18 million Americans living with cancer and that number is expected to grow as our population ages. With the number of survivors on the rise, it is fair to say that cancer is a chronic condition that can be managed, for a majority of individuals, both children and adults, allowing them to lead fulfilling and meaningful lives as what we call, "cancer survivors."

The definition of “cancer survivor” was established more than two decades ago by the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship as follows – any person diagnosed with cancer, from the time of initial diagnosis until death. The definition was refined later to include family, friends and caregivers affected in any way by a cancer diagnosis.

When we hear the words "cancer survivor," a few different thoughts usually come to mind based on the many survivors we’ve had the pleasure of meeting: strength, endurance, resilience, grace, compassion ... the list goes on. It’s amazing to see the number of people who've been touched by cancer who understand the importance of giving back to others. From sharing their personal stories to becoming patient advocates, leading support groups or mentoring recently-diagnosed cancer patients; survivors have powerful and meaningful stories to share.

Yet, patients who are being treated for cancer, or those dealing with recurrence, don’t always identify themselves as survivors. In addition, there are others who don’t like the survivor term, instead identifying themselves as “thrivers,” which focuses more on living as well as possible without casting a light on their chronic condition.

We have recently become acquainted with a new term – “previvor.” This refers to persons surviving the risk of cancer because of genetic mutation. With DNA test results in-hand nowadays, people now can make informed decisions as a means to prevent cancer diagnoses. A woman with a BRCA mutation who manages that risk in ways that include preventative measures, such as the removal of ovaries or bilateral mastectomy, to prevent breast or ovarian cancer is one example of a previvor.

It is expected that more people will be considered previvors as more genetic mutations indicating cancer risks are identified. Of course, the discovery of new prevention strategies will help others take an active role in their own cancer prevention.

What do you think about the terms “survivor” “thriver” and “previvor?” Are there certain words you use to describe yourself, your caregivers, family and friends in the context of cancer?

Interested in more newsfeed posts like this? Go to the Cancer Education blog.

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