Survival Revisited

Surviving, imperfective aspect

Surviving, imperfective aspect (1)

I’ve been considering survival as a concept for a long time and my ideas have developed and changed. Two of my early posts, in October of 2011, were “Have I Survived Yet?” Part I and Part II. At that time and until recently I disliked—even resented—the label “breast cancer survivor”. I’m still sick, the cancer is active in my body, I thought. I haven’t survived yet. You’ve only survived something when it’s over and you’re still there.

A conversation on Facebook recently startled me in into thinking along different lines. “In my book, you’re a survivor,” wrote a friend of a friend after reading the posts I linked above. (Of course I can’t find the conversation now so I can’t cite it more carefully.) A few connections sparked in my mind.

A person swimming is a swimmer. A person walking is walker. A runner is a person who runs habitually, even if they are not running just at the moment. A teacher teaches. A survivor, I concluded, survives. Surviving can be ongoing, imperfective (uncompleted), a state of being; it is not necessarily a perfective act, accomplished at a given point in time and relegated to the past ever after.

Think about people on a lifeboat after a catastrophic accident at sea. Their lives are still in peril. They are still in danger of perishing, but at this moment they are alive. They are survivors. Even if they die of exposure an hour from now, right now they are survivors.

Of course, this does not mean they are living in uninterrupted bliss.  Quite the contrary: day by day, hour by hour, they have to cope with an unforgiving environment, find solutions for food and water, and face mortal danger from all quarters. Surviving is an active state for them, not a passive one; not an accomplishment, but an endeavor.

So I suppose I am a survivor in the sense that I still survive. Survive, for me, is a verb in the imperfective aspect, not the perfective (2).

I wonder why it’s taken me so long to come to this point of view. Maybe I felt that calling myself a survivor would mean buying into the breast cancer pink ribbon fantasy. Maybe I felt that it would somehow devalue my daily struggle, minimize the seriousness of the diagnosis. Or humiliatingly, maybe I just felt it would make me less special.

I still can’t refer to myself as “a breast cancer survivor”. The term lacks nuance. Nevertheless, I am surviving.

(1) Image copyright: Tyler Olson
(2) For those among us who are not language nerds, Auntie Wiki explains the terms here.

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27 Responses

  1. Julie Frayn says:

    I’d say you’ve been surviving all of your life, given everything that has been heaped upon you. You’re still here. For that, I (selfishly) am happy. You are an amazing person. xoxo

  2. Andrew says:

    English is sometimes an imperfect language. I get what you mean by ‘survivor.’ I “survived” prostate cancer but sometimes it still doesn’t feel that way to me. It means a lot more to the people around me – my wife, brothers, friends… It gives them the ability to have sometime positive to say around me, “you’re a survivor!” It’s well meaning and I’ve learn to just accept that they are trying to be supportive even though, as you say, the nuance of the word isn’t right in my mind.

  3. Liked this post. Survivor is a tough word for those of us with metastatic disease. Like you, I resented it for many years. Now I say, “I’m not a survivor in the usual definition of the word, but I’m surviving every day!”
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  4. Susanne says:

    You nailed it, what it means to be a stage IV survivor. It’s an active state of being, something we make a conscious choice to do every single day, an ongoing struggle that we win for each day we survive. It is not an ending, a title awarded at the end of a journey.

    Being a survivor doesn’t mean we’re done with treatment and cured. It means we live every single day with cancer, and every single day we survive it. It’s an ongoing process, not a final verdict.

    This post. All of this. Sharing this so hard.

  5. JSM says:

    …not a state of being, but an endeavor. I *really* like this. It helps me consider the term differently. None of us know that we are “done,” and most dramatically not those with mets.
    I call myself a breast cancer *participant* which gives me the room I need.
    Thank you for your insight.

    • Knot Telling says:

      “Participant” that is great and kind of yucky at the same time, if you know what I mean. Who in their right mind would choose to participate in this particular endeavor?

  6. Gail Speers says:

    I agree and have same internal dialogue. Surviving since 2003!
    Be well, gail

    • Knot Telling says:

      We are breast cancer twins! I was diagnosed at the end of 2003 and started treatment at the beginning of 2004.

  7. Knot, you are most definitely a survivor. Well before I read this post, I had thought about the term and you are one of the people in particular who stood out in my mind as a survivor. No matter what the circumstances, your inner strength enables you to be your best self. Even when you’re weak and hurting and don’t feel your best, you still press on, still shine, and to me, that is a survivor.

  8. Mae says:

    I love this post and your definition is perfect. I too hate the term “survivor” even though I am NED. The thought of cancer still haunts me and a change in diet, sleep and stress levels may or may not help my future. You are the definition of a survivor with your active state of being. I am not even sure how to say this correctly but you are more alive in the moment then most walking this earth.

  9. Kathi says:

    Knot, I love this. Such an apt, eloquent reclamation of that so very problematic word ‘survivor.’ The word has spent far too much time being co-opted by the Pink Party People, rendering it meaningless & trivial & invalidating for most of us. It’s about time we wrested it back. Thank you for doing that so perceptively. Love you to bits.

    • Knot Telling says:

      “Pink Party People” is my new favorite term.

      Thanks for your kind words. I’m still ambivalent about the word “survivor”, but this post represents my current thought about it.

      Loving you right back!

  10. Maxine D says:

    I love ‘seeing’ your thoughts on this topic Knot, and how you are prepared to re-think things. For what it is worth, when it takes you all your strength to live one day at a time, then I say you are definitely a survivour!!
    Blessings and prayers

    • Knot Telling says:

      Thank you, Maxine. The day I am not willing to look at my ideas and reconsider them is the day I lose my intellectual honesty.

  11. JSM says:

    Another thought – In the film “Pink Ribbon Inc.” (which is outstanding) – in a support group of women with mets, one woman describes her dislike of the term “survivor.” She said it felt painful to hear it – like that term celebrated people who made it, and somehow dishonored those who die of mets, as if they have failed or given up or not succeeded as well as the “survivors.” That has stuck with me.

    • Knot Telling says:

      Yes, I have thought that, too, but not so much dishonor as utterly ignore. I often feel that the breast cancer world as depicted by the Pink Patrols acts as if we don’t exist.

  12. Nora says:

    You have helped me in many ways (outside of cancer) just in the daily act of being to evaluate, continue, endure. You help me to see, not just outside the box, but what is inside the box with me and what can I do mentally to face any challenge, big or small, with dignity and creativity. I am very thankful for you. I can see how the term survivor would be a bump in the road, I see you not only as that though but also as a teacher of survival.

  1. 28 February, 2015

    […] as a companion piece, read Ann Marie’s latest post on why words matter, and Nicole and Knot Telling on the use of the term […]

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