Changing the Meaning

“You see us as you want to see us: in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions.”


I will continue posting the story of my decision to not get nipple reconstruction, but to instead get a funky tattoo, a source of much joy for me, in the next few days. I had to interrupt posts on that story because of this other cool post I read.

There was recently a great post at Regrounding about the word victim and its use in Cancerland and a few other communities. I’ve always had much trouble with some language in Cancerland—the words warrior, survivor, hope, awareness, fight, acceptance, healing—all have made me at least uncomfortable, sometimes downright angry. I had not given much thought to the word victim, although I rarely if ever used it to refer to myself, until I read Lori’s post and the comments that went with it. The tweeters in the post’s anecdote, and many of those who commented, outright rejected the word victim, although the meaning of the word fits. Part of me wants to say, yeah, I am a victim, because cancer happened to me through no fault of my own, just like a hurricane or some other natural disaster. As the post pointed out, we have no problem saying, “I am a victim of the most recent hurricane.” But you know, we could place blame on those folks too, couldn’t we? Who told those “victims” to live near the ocean, or near the fault line, or in a tornado-magnet trailer park? Who told you to get fat and not have children so you would get cancer? See my point?

So I am kind of afraid to identify as a victim of cancer. While I do not view myself as weak, I will be perceived that way; judging from that post. One person cannot change the meaning of a word or symbol in society just by proclaiming the word/symbol to have another meaning. Let me explain in an anecdotal example.

Once upon a time, before I got cancer, I got involved in an on air radio discussion. Topic of the day: some folks flying the Confederate flag at a local 4th of July parade (and we are just barely in The South, we never seceded, but yes this area was slaveholding, and our butts were immediately whipped at the start of the war). This rock station’s DJs were a bit conservative, touting individual freedom in order to support the people who displayed the flag. The common agreement was the flag represents state’s rights, and no one should be criticized for displaying it. I called in to discuss this issue, pointing out that 1) everyone has the right to free expression and 2) even the swastika’s origin is Hindu, and once had positive meaning, like being good or your higher self, but it doesn’t mean that now! The DJs misconstrued my comments as supportive. Actually I do support freedom of expression; everyone has the right to make an ass of themselves! (I do it every day.)


But my larger point is this. If I wore clothes with swastikas all over it —even with the little extra dots around it like the Hindu version—I would be perceived as a Nazi, a racist. I could say until I was blue in the face, “no, it’s Hindu for good, being my higher self,” and I probably would just get a lot of funny looks. Bottom line, in today’s society, the swastika means racism and Nazism, Hitler bastardized it, and it will take hundreds of years to change that. The stars and bars mean Confederacy, the losing side of the Civil War, and racism. Even the phrase “state’s rights” was used to really mean the right to own slaves. If you display the rebel flag, especially with the words heritage or pride, you may think you are just showing off your redneck status—or a really misguided devotion to “The Dukes of Hazzard” television show—but you are pretty much going to be perceived as a racist. Yammer on all you want that you are not a racist, that you are just showing pride and heritage, not many will listen or believe you. Sorry folks, that is just how it is, deal with it. (Here is a great opportunity to prove me wrong readers…please!)

These symbols, and words that become symbolic, are societal shorthand to judge each other, to put others into little stereotypical boxes in our minds. See a guy or girl with long hair, sandals, and tie dye t-shirt? Hippie, follower of the Grateful Dead, probably too stoned to be a productive member of society. See a dude with a pocket protector, glasses? Geek, nerd, can probably fix my computer. Hear a breast cancer patient identify as victim? She is weak and helpless. See a bald woman decked out in pink with the ribbon all over? She is a warrior, and she is gonna beat this thing, personally. All of this is just absurd, and not always true.

I do not know how to change how society perceives these symbols. I do know that just me alone, standing here in my corner of the internet saying “I am a victim of cancer, and that is not negative and I am not helpless and weak,” will not change the symbolic language. I could go on all day, picking apart why I dislike all those other words (warrior, hope, survivor), not sure it would get me anywhere. I guess the key is that all of us, not just here in Cancerland should stop judging others.

But the sad question is, can we? Last night for the millionth time, I watched The Breakfast Club (the remote was all the way across the room and I was too lazy to get it), a great film making me nostalgic for my pre-teen and teen years. Ultimately, I am glad for this laziness inspired turn of events. I forgot how brutal the kids are to each other in the beginning. Their judgments and assumptions of each other based on how each kid self-identified by style of dress & choice of friends, was cruel and astounding.  Worst part? Nothing has changed, we are all still living on high school terms! The film is nearly 30 years old, and this quote from it still rings true:

“You see us as you want to see us: in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions.”

My challenge to society, especially breast cancer society is this: can we change, stop making assumptions about others based on how we self-identify, etc? For example, online, my blog, can tend to be negative. I can be a positive person in real (not cancer related) life, I do tend to be Pollyanna, always looking on the bright side, I just tend to use my blog & cancer support group as a place to vent. There is a reason for that, but that is a whole other post. Wanna know another secret about me? I may call myself a cancer victim, but I do not have the victim mentality, it has nothing to do with who or how I was before cancer. I came from a poor, uneducated family background. I was the first grandchild on my mother’s side to go to college, and I paid for it MYSELF and I am very proud of that. It would have been easy for me to live out the expected stereotype for my background: redneck, pregnant before 20, etc. and blaming my parents or family for how my life turned out (which is what we think those with a victim mentality do, don’t we?). But I changed my situation because I could. Hell, the fact I look at that as a bad situation shows I am a stereotypin’ jackass my own self!

I cannot change that cancer happened to me.

Now what?

I am a Cancer Victim

Wow, great post, great discussion. I love anything that causes thought provoking discussion.

I am fascinated by the knee-jerk rejection of the word victim. Based on the definition in the beginning of this post, being a victim is nothing to be ashamed of, really. It is not like I actively “asked for it”; I did not sit around, cigarette dangling out of my mouth, beer in one hand, fatty chicken leg in the other going “come and get me cancer!” I did not cause my cancer. And I think there is something to be explored when you say “I wonder if our visceral anger when hearing ‘cancer victim’ isn’t about our not having completely, deeply shaken the notion of blaming the cancer victim.” The message that one can prevent cancer by eating right, exercising, abstaining from smoke an alcohol is ubiquitous and the way I interpret it, I am being blamed for getting cancer. I see many comments about empowering oneself and choosing to do all these right things, and I wonder if that is about helping the patient feel back in control. I pose this question: if we desire to empower ourselves and exert control by doing all these right things, and reject the notion of victimhood, then if cancer returns, are we willing to accept blame?

The word victim seems to be another troubling—for me—piece of the confusing language of cancer. I do not generally call myself a victim, but after this post I might. If I remember correctly, rejection of the word started when breast cancer activism began borrowing from AIDS activism, as patients began to identify as activists, and then blew up when the Komen/Livestrong warrior language (wish I could remember the places I read this, so I could site it). I have so much trepidation regarding these words: awareness, survivor, victim, warrior, acceptance, battle, fight, hope. I am coming to terms with identifying as survivor but I may never be comfortable with the warrior talk. I did not battle cancer; I made logical, informed decisions to go to a doctor, learn my options, and engage in treatment. It wasn’t as dramatic as gearing up for a firefight in Iraq or something, but I do not consider myself passive either; that would’ve been choosing to not get treated and let cancer kill me. To me hope is the most passive word in the bunch, but that is the one slathered all over breast cancer awareness ads, and usually embraced in the community. I don’t like it. Sounds like we are just supposed to wait like good little patients, and hope someone finds a cure. Bleh, no thanks.

It is odd to me that there is discussion about victim mentality; if anything, the example you presented seems to indicate the opposite. Sounds like specifically in this instance there was almost peer pressure to reject victimhood and so forth. I do not think it is a symptom of victimhood mentality, or a failure to move forward by recognizing that cancer had a major impact on my life. Obviously it did, or I would not be blogging about it, or reading other blogs and commenting on them.


vic·tim  [vik-tim] noun

1. a person who suffers from a destructive or injurious action or agency: a victim of an automobile accident.

2. a person who is deceived or cheated, as by his or her own emotions or ignorance, by the dishonesty of others, or by some impersonal agency: a victim of misplaced confidence; the victim of a swindler; a victim of an optical illusion.


This one is going to rankle some feathers, and I look forward to a brisk dialogue in the comments section!

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