01/22/2013 03:27 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2013

Labels Work Best on Soup Cans

When I learned to read way back in first grade during the Dick, Jane and Spot era, my class was neatly divided into three reading groups according to our ability, or that's what the intention was anyway. Each group came up with some kind of "cutesie" name to call itself like Squirrels, Bluebirds or Bears.

It didn't really matter what we called ourselves though, because everyone knew what the names really meant. Everyone knew they really meant top, middle or bottom. We all knew exactly what was being done. We were being labeled.

When I became an educator myself, I always tried to avoid labeling children in my classroom because as they say, children often live up to those labels or worse yet, never escape from them once they've been branded with one. Once labeled a troublemaker, too often, always labeled a troublemaker.

Maybe this labeling is okay if you are labeled as "gifted" or as a "high achiever" (I wouldn't know, I never had those labels), but if you are average or below, have a learning challenge of any kind or are one of "those troublemakers," it's not so great to be given a label you can never quite shake free of.

Fast forward into cancer life, and I find myself inundated with cancer labels.

Of course the big one is "survivor."

This label poses a few problems for me right off the bat. First of all, when do I get to call myself a survivor? Is it the day of my diagnosis? Is it the day they cut out my tumor? Or is it the day I finish formal treatment for the first time?

And do I call myself a survivor for the rest of my life, until I'm literally no longer surviving anything?

But if you survive something, shouldn't the thing you survived be over for good?

With cancer this is never a certainty. The recurrence possibility always looms.

This uncertainty is sometimes also accompanied by a fair amount of survivor's guilt.

Why do I get to be a survivor while so many others do not?

And what about those living with metastatic cancer? Are they merely temporary survivors?

Then there is that visually descriptive "fighter" label that seems to be almost automatically handed out to each cancer patient as if we are all entering some kind of "cancer ring" where we must prove ourselves, duke it out and show our tough side, because society says we should put up a "tough fight" if we want to win this battle.

I wish it were that simple.

And "battle," there's another word that gets loosely tossed around out there in cancer land.

While it's true, I do have more than a couple of actual scars that make me look like I have indeed been in a battle of some sort, for some reason I don't particularly care for this comparison either.

What is it with our cancer/war metaphor obsession, anyway?

Many times, battle is also accompanied by another pair of labels that generally would be quite complimentary, "courageous" and "brave."

When I read obituaries (and yes, sometimes I do, don't ask me why), the first thing I look for after the name and age of the deceased is the cause of death. When the cause is cancer, I can't begin to count the number of times it goes on to say so-and-so died after a long and courageous battle with cancer.

I know this is meant to be a compliment to the deceased, but I don't like the "final succumbing" this seems to imply. Cancer patients don't "give up." Treatment stops working. Patients run out of options. They die because of this, not because they didn't fight the battle long enough or hard enough.

They didn't die because they were poor "soldiers."

And cancer patients are not more or less brave or courageous than anyone else. Each deals with his/her cancer situation in whatever way he/she can muster.

Do these metaphors and labels somehow diminish a person's disease experience and passing?
I think they do.

Maybe we should just come out and say the person died as a result of cancer and stop trying to "dance around" the deadliness of this disease.

One of the last conversations I had with my mother was about this exact topic of labeling.

"Please don't say in my obituary I died after a long and courageous battle with cancer," she almost begged of me on one of her last days.

"Okay, we won't say that," I promised her. And we didn't.

At the time, it didn't really register with me why this choice of words bothered her so much. Now, I totally get it.

I don't know why certain cancer labels bother me so much. Perhaps they are too confining and restrictive. Perhaps they give the wrong impression. Perhaps they are too hard to live up to.

Or perhaps they are just plain unnecessary.

Regardless of the reason, I will continue to avoid labels. I will avoid them for myself and try to avoid labeling others as well.

If labels work for you, that's fine. But as for me...

I'm choosing not to "wear" them.

I think labels work best on soup cans.

What do you think?

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