i think by now we’re all used to conceptualizing of cancer as a fight or a battle. when i googled “elizabeth edwards loses battle,” for example, i got 71,000 results, many of them news articles with headlines like this one from CNN.
i don’t know if it’s just me, but i when i think of the “winners” of battles, i think of those warriors who were better prepared, had more sophisticated strategies, superior weaponry, higher-tech equipment, the right leadership. the list of what makes a “winner” goes on and on. in real life, battles aren’t like soccer games for 6-year-old kids. not everyone can win and take home a tacky trophy. someone has to lose. the losers are the opposite of the winners. they didn’t have whatever key ingredient/s or combination thereof it took to win. they are weaker of mind, body and/or spirit, and, ultimately, they are vanquished.
when this imagery and set of assumptions is applied to cancer, the disease represents one side in the fight and the patient the other. when i hear the words “cancer battle,” for some reason i always picture this scene from the movie 300.
and i wonder, according this rubric, which side am i supposed to represent? the underdog spartans with their magnificent spray tans and badass CG abs? or the representatives of the all-powerful persian empire, with their elephants and mercenaries and…well, lots of things on the list of what supposedly makes a winner. in this case, the all-powerful persians were, ultimately, vanquished because they didn’t have true grit like the spartans did. hmm. don’t know how i traveled from 480 BC to the wild west, but i think you can probably tell where i’m going with this.
as debbie, who has ovarian cancer, so rightly points out in this great salon article, “what does winning look like? you live forever?”
writer mary elizabeth williams goes on to say:
…the tired metaphor of battle reduces the experience of cancer to one of agonizing struggle. It makes enemies of our bodies, and suggests that when, as Elizabeth Edwards has, one chooses to end treatment, one has waved a white flag of surrender.
when i read a headline like “elizabeth edwards loses battle to cancer,” i, too, am filled with a sense of defeat. and questions that are often tantamount to blaming the patient, the one who did not emerge victorious, the vanquished. questions like: “did she fight hard enough?” “did she seek enough opinions?” “did she try alternative treatments?” “did she have a positive enough attitude?”
the answers to those questions are irrelevant. elizabeth edwards’ death, like the deaths of all those who die from cancer, didn’t have to do with how hard she fought. (we all know she “fought” hard.) it didn’t have to do with the fact that she somehow had a weaker spirit, or less determination than the disease. she died. because she had cancer. if she hadn’t had cancer, she would have died, eventually, of something else.
and when i think about elizabeth edwards, i don’t think she died a loser in cancerland. i think she died a winner in lifeland. how about a headline like this: “elizabeth edwards, victorious in life, died today of cancer”?
while i don’t think it’s particularly likely that i alone can change the nomenclature of cancer, i think it’s worth giving some consideration to how we could update the ways in which we talk about cancer in order to confer less blame on the patient. as someone with a chronic form of cancer, i’ll never be a “survivor.” i won’t ever have “beat” it entirely. but i also don’t like the idea of going through the rest of my life as a “fighter” in a battle i know i’m going to lose sooner or later. it just seems a little defeating.
i’m going to be doing some thinking about possible alternatives to the current cancer vocabularly. and i’m interested in hearing your thoughts, too! are there other words you think would be more appropriate than “battle,” “fighter,” “survivor” and, ultimately, though implied only, “loser”?
i will leave you with this song, by beck, which doesn’t have anything at all to do with this post, other than the fact that it inspired the title!