• What makes a cancer survivor?

Cindy Weiss in a photo from 2005, during her initial treatment for ovarian cancer.
Cindy Weiss in a photo from 2005, during her initial treatment for ovarian cancer.


June 1 is designated National Cancer Survivor Day – a time to celebrate those living with cancer. It seems ironic, though, for one day to be called out as cancer survivor’s day. Let's be honest – once you receive a diagnosis of cancer, regardless of what kind, every day is essentially survivor’s day.

As a two-time ovarian cancer patient, I know this. But the word "survivor" brings some dilemma. Exactly who is a survivor? What defines a survivor? Are you a survivor after you've completed a six-month chemo regime? Finished weeks of radiation? Lived for x-number of years cancer-free? The question or definition of a survivor is something I and others have grappled with for years.

“Survivor” is a strong and powerful word. According to one definition, a survivor is one “who continues to function or prosper in spite of opposition, hardship, or setbacks.” Sounds like every cancer patient I've ever known. But it’s also a label I’d apply to family members and friends. It takes a village to raise a child, they say. So, too, I believe to fight cancer. By that definition, aren't we all survivors?

Today is a great opportunity to honor those living with cancer as well as acknowledge friends and family and pay tribute  to the healthcare providers and researchers who work daily to increase the length and quality of life of survivors.

As an employee at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., I've had the chance to work with many of these amazing individuals. I am in awe of the work they do, aiming for a day when we no longer have to define ourselves.

Seven years ago, I had just started my career at Mayo Clinic when I received my second diagnosis. I recall people saying “Well, you couldn't be in a better place.” I’d smile and nod, but inside I was scared and confused. Just because I worked at a well-known healthcare institution didn't mean I wanted to be there as a patient. I didn't want to have cancer. Again. Besides, I didn't know these people and their research like I do today.

Over the years, I've personally come to know many of the selfless and caring doctors and nurses, technicians and therapists at Mayo Clinic's Cancer Center, all of whom share a passion for their patients and survivorship.  I've also had the privilege to meet some world-renowned researchers who work daily to solve the mysteries of cancer and identify new therapies.  I know I'm in a good place – should I ever need it.

But alas, as I think about survivorship, I can’t help but think about those who are no longer with us.

My grandmother Rae, my aunt Martha, my friends Kelly, Mary and Debbie and... the list is unfortunately long. These individuals ultimately lost their battles, but they are survivors, too. They survive in our hearts and in our memories. And we, in turn, survive because of them. They are the reason we do our work, our research, share our stories.

So today I raise a glass and say l’chaim - to life! To mine, to yours, to theirs. We are all survivors.



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