Sunday, September 18, 2011

It's cancer, not a football game

Recently one of my friends sent me a link to this article about the death of Jack Layton, Canadian Leader of the Opposition, from cancer. She knew the focus of the article is a subject close to my heart: the way our society is fond of describing cancer as a "battle" that we "fight" and hopefully "win" rather than "lose." I can't remember a time when I didn't hate this conceit with all my heart, and this week it's a subject that is especially dear to me.

In The Kingdom of Childhood, Judy is mourning the death of her best-- and perhaps only-- friend from cancer. At one point she visits Bobbie's grave, and recalls a time when her hospitalized friend is told she's putting up a great fight. I'm not fighting anything, Bobbie snaps. I'm not winning. I'm not losing. I just lie here and it fucks me up. It's cancer, not a football game.

That's not in the story by accident. When I was 14, I lost my 11-year-old sister to cancer. She had been sick for three years, and I always felt uneasy, and sometimes downright disgusted, with the language of war that was inflicted on the poor kid. Heidi didn't seem to mind, and I can't speak for her-- maybe she found it inspiring, I don't know. What I do know is that cancer is a disease of cell mutation, not an assessment of one's character. Sure, we want to keep people's spirits up. We don't want them to feel passive and helpless in dealing with a daunting illness. I get all that. But when we use battle language for a medical condition, telling kids (especially!) that they're strong enough to beat this thing, to fight it-- they're going to win! They're going to show cancer who's boss!-- it puts a tremendous burden on the children themselves. It gives the treatment plan an overtone of being about the child's own effort, their will to live, their character. God help anyone who tries to tell me my sister "lost her battle" with cancer. She didn't lose a damn thing. She died of a disease.

Now, I don't think there's anything wrong with people calling themselves "survivors" of cancer or anything else. It's perfectly rational to note that you have survived a circumstance that others did not; my sister, for example, is not a cancer survivor. And I don't get all scrappy over the low-level use of "fighting" to describe trying to get over an illness; it's a reasonable verb to describe what the immune system does. What I object to is the flogging of the metaphor.

Case in point: the "Fuck Cancer" car-window stickers I've been seeing lately. On the one hand it feels jerky for me to criticize, because I've never had cancer, thank goodness, so who am I to talk? But I spent three of my most formative years living alongside a cancer patient, sitting at her bedside through her death, and then mourning her for a very long time. My family, in many respects, was torn to pieces by the shock waves from her illness. I can speak with great authority on what that disease can do to a person and to a family. And I still don't think that entitles anyone to the "privilege" of putting the word "Fuck" on their car window for my children to read. We can honor victims, donate money for research, work to assist families in crisis. We don't have to anthropomorphize cancer to the point that we're calling it out in front of small children using high-level profanity. Let's contain the damage just a little, okay? Can we agree on that?

This past week, one of my favorite cousins-- I don't have many at all, and so she is particularly dear-- informed me that she has cancer. Her doctors are optimistic and so is she, but there's nothing minor about what she's facing. My heart goes out to her, and I wouldn't dare attempt to tell her how she should frame her own illness in her mind. She has the right to do that any way she wants. But I can tell you how I'll approach it--with optimism that she will get better, keeping my appeals to my deity to myself, and not burdening her with the idea that her inner strength will be proven by this trial.

A life is not a "win" or a "loss." A life is a life. Let's agree to use language that honors that.


  1. I very much felt you were spot on in this. Thanks for the perspective. I liked this so much I read it aloud to my husband who also agreed wholeheartedly. Thanks!

  2. Thank you! I appreciate hearing that. It's not a sentiment that's shared by everyone, so it's good to know I have company.