Let's Watch How We Speak About Cancer

A poignant and timely piece in the New York Post today; take it to heart:

The word “battle” has become synonymous with the experience of cancer. With no other information than a diagnosis, headlines will declare that a public figure who’s revealed a health issue is “battling” disease, and if the outcome is death, the obits declare that he or she “lost” said battle.

When Jimmy Carter announced last year he was in treatment for melanoma, a reporter asked him, “You’ve fought many political battles throughout your career. How tough do you expect this fight against cancer will be?” I watched at home and groaned aloud.

If metaphors of war describe how you felt going through the rigors of your own cancer, by all means, express the experience in your terms. But if you are speaking of someone else’s cancer — whether it has involved recovery or death — please don’t presume that’s what they did. A battle implies a fair fight, and there was nothing fair about my cancer, or the cancer that took the life of my friend. Those experiences were about as fair as getting hit by a car — and nobody says people lose their battles with automobiles.

A battle implies a quest the individual chooses, and then either succeeds or fails at. That’s a concept that I, as a typical New Yorker, clearly understand. I regularly battle the crowds on the subway; I battle my near constant craving for the hot chocolate at City Bakery; I battle film crews set up on my street when I have to get into my building. And I never once battled my cancer. I was diagnosed with cancer. I lived with it. I was treated for it. The treatment worked. I have been, throughout all of it, merely a woman who got very sick and is sick no longer.


“Losing a battle” also implies a failure on the loser’s part, such as Napoleon at Waterloo; if only Wellington hadn’t picked the turf, if only Napoleon hadn’t been sick that morning and gotten to the field late. If only…

A battle implies courage, something I swear is not an automatic side effect of being diagnosed with a cruel disease. And the word “battle” implies that recovery is a matter not of medicine and good fortune, but of just trying hard enough. If effort and desire were the sole criteria for recovery, don’t you think we’d all live long, healthy lives?

The word “battle” is dramatic and urgent. It shouts out from headlines in an attention-getting way. But once you’ve experienced cancer up close, you see that it is dramatic and urgent enough without forcing the point. And if you want to speak of life as a battle against mortality, remember then that in the end, we all ultimately reach the same result.

Nobody gets out of here alive. Let’s keep that in mind when our time comes.


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