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.