I struggle a little with my choice of words – in part because others are so challenged by it. I’ve talked about the battle metaphor and my challenge it with. Now I find myself reflecting on the words Survivor and Journey.
I chose to identify as a breast cancer survivor. I use the term survivor for lack of a better word. It is the word the most people understand. It doesn’t feel authentic for me because I will not know if I survived breast cancer until I die of something else. It is also a word that is hurtful to dear friends of mine – those with metastatic breast cancer who are living today but know that they will not survive breast cancer. For them, the disease is terminal. I have an internal struggle when I use that word, but alas, I use it because it is a term that other people understand.
Journey is another one of those words. Every time I write the word journey I think of Emily McDowell’s empathy care “Illness is not a Journey”. And she is right, illness is an experience. Calling it a journey puts some pressure for the need for personal growth. Sure, some people do grow, and have spiritual awakenings as a result of their cancer experience, but not everyone does, and no survivor should be expected to have a magical transformation.
But then I am stuck for another word. I don’t have a better option to explain my experience – especially when I’m writing it in the form of an autoethnography, where there is specific insight and knowledge coming from the articulation of the experience. A journey is to travel from one place to another. For me, the experience of breast cancer was a journey – a form of transformation. From a purely academic perspective, I see that I have transformed (maybe grown). I see value in different types of research. Would that have happened without the cancer experience? Maybe, but likely not to the same extent that it has.
The interesting thing is that with time I will learn to own the words the I chose. I have learned to own it when I call myself a survivor. I just haven’t yet chosen to own the word journey.
What do you call your experience with illness? Do you like or dislike the word journey?