When Can I Say I Am a Breast Cancer Survivor?

mother and daughter at breast cancer survivor walk

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Today, the term breast cancer survivor is one that means different things to different people. Many think of it as a badge they can only wear after they are cancer-free for a number of years. Others, including those at the National Cancer Institute, say you are considered a survivor on the day that you are diagnosed and remain one throughout the rest of your life. There are also people who avoid using the term altogether.

Understanding how one defines a breast cancer survivor is really only important when considering research on these individuals, so you can know whether or not it may apply to you. But beyond that, this is a term that you own—you are a breast cancer survivor when you say you are.

Categorizations of Breast Cancer Survivors

Many cancer organizations find the current definition of breast cancer survivorship too broad. The definition of a lumps those who have just been diagnosed and those who are 20-year survivors into the same group. From a clinical standpoint, not all breast cancer survivors are alike.

To specifically designate where someone is in their breast cancer journey, some oncologists (and breast cancer patients) use different functional terms. For example, there are people who are acute survivors (newly diagnosed) and those that are long-term survivors. There is also an area in the middle in which people have had their breast cancer for some time but are still in either active treatment, or receiving maintenance or preventive treatment.

Here's a sense of how breast cancer survivors may be categorized:

Category of Survivors Description
Acute Includes people at the time of diagnosis or when a breast cancer recurs (relapse). These people are in need of active treatment of their disease.
Chronic Includes people with breast cancers that are slowly progressive or have cancers that go through periods of remission followed by relapse. Quality of life is usually fairly good.
Long-term survivors Includes people who have been in clinical remission for a long period of time but who remain at risk for distant relapse or second tumors. This category includes people who may experience long-term treatment-related physical or emotional side effects.
Cured A person may be called "cured" if the chance that they will die from breast cancer and their overall life expectancy is the same as someone of the same age and sex in the general population. This term is carefully used by doctors, if at all.

How Could Someone Be a Breast Cancer Survivor at Diagnosis?

Breast cancer needs time to grow. So, if a breast mass shows up on a mammogram or is detected during a monthly breast self-exam, you have already been living with it for some time.

A such, surviving this period of time is what prompts many people to consider diagnosis the point at which you can be called a breast cancer survivor.

Why Do Oncologists Rarely Say Someone Is "Cured?"

Most people who are breast cancer survivors will fall into the first three categories in the table above, as oncologists will rarely use the word cured for people with solid tumors, even if a cancer was in the very early stages of the disease. Your doctor may say you are in remission or that you are NED (no evidence of disease.

With breast cancer, the term cured is usually reserved for those with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS).

Breast cancer can hide and come back years or even decades later. Unfortunately, this occurs far too often.

Celebrating Your Survivorship

Whether you call yourself a breast cancer survivor or not—yet or ever)—you may want to pick a date that you consider your cancer anniversary (what some people call your "cancerversary.")

This might be the day you were diagnosed, the day you began treatment, the day you oncologist said you were in remission, or something else that has meaning for you. The idea of marking such a day is to help you take pause and reflect back on (and celebrate) the strength you, perhaps, never knew you had.

Some things to consider if you choose a "cancerversary" date:

  • If you are going to celebrate your survivorship with early-stage breast cancer, your oncologist may say that the best date for describing yourself as a survivor is the day that you completed your initial treatment, including surgery and possibly chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy.
  • Defining a date can be difficult if you have metastatic breast cancer, for which treatment is ongoing. In a situation such as this, many people celebrate survivorship beginning with the day they were diagnosed.

A Word From Verywell

More and more people are surviving cancer than ever before. Therefore, in addition to living with and managing cancer, planning your life after cancer is equally important. But you may be anxious about the future and the possibility of recurrence. It, therefore, may be a good idea to look into a survivorship program to help you get the support you need–both medical and psychological. Speak to your oncologist about such options in your area.

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Article Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Cancer Institute. NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms. Survivor.

  2. Cancer.Net. Breast Cancer: Survivorship.

  3. American Cancer Society. Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS).

  4. National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship. What’s Your Cancerversary ®?

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