survivor (illnesses)Last updated
Survivorship is a difficult topic; some diseases, like cancer, may have clinically significant and agreed-upon standards for survivorship, but the vast majority of illnesses do not. Chronic illnesses and many types of disability (like congenital disorders, d/Deafness, or having had an amputation) would not be expected to have an end point marker. Many disabled people who do not view their disability as inherently or only negative may also be offended by the term survivor, which can imply that a disability is an obstacle to overcome. Following the person’s preferred terminology whenever possible aligns your framing with their lived experience. Language that feels empowering to certain people may not work for everyone.
When describing an anticipated experience, it’s important to find ways to describe a prognosis without using terms that assume or suggest how that prognosis makes an individual and others feel. Terms like “dire” or “death sentence” can be reductive, inaccurate, and stigmatizing (particularly in describing HIV). Including only the specific medical terms of a prognosis, and allowing a person to describe their experience themselves where possible, can lead to a more accurate portrayal. Also keep in mind that a prognosis is an expectation rooted in averages; it is not necessarily something that will be permanent or happen exactly as described.
Use similar care when describing a person who has had an illness that was completely treated. For example, for a person who had cancer and is now in remission, be aware that a term like “miraculous recovery” may not fit their experience. A person who was treated over a long period or received many types of painful treatment may not feel that their recovery was “miraculous” or “spontaneous.” Terms like “living with,” “has,” “had,” or “was treated for” are straightforward and may be best unless a person has expressed a preference for a term that uses “survivor” (e.g., “cancer survivor,” “burn survivor”). Use caution with past tense, as a person may move through different stages of their experience, which may not always be obvious to an outside observer.
- I have cancer. Please don’t call me a ‘survivor.’ (MedPage Today)
“Survivor” is a term used by some people who have had an illness or similar experience. Because of the many connotations and uses of the term, “survivor” may not match every person’s perception of their experience. Following the person’s preferred terminology whenever possible aligns your framing with their lived experience. Language that feels empowering to certain people may not work for everyone.