I can’t believe I’m writing about this again, but here goes …
This morning Lynda Bellingham’s death from cancer was announced. Cue dozens (no doubt more) headlines and presenters talking about how she’d ‘lost her battle’ with cancer.
No, she didn’t. She died. There was no battle, there was a disease. She was not a warrior, she was a person. When we talk about cancer in the language of war, when we anthropomorphize cancer, when we make it other than the self, we damage anyone who is living alongside someone living with/dying of cancer, but we damage those of us with cancer most of all.
I have had two breast cancers, the first time round I had a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, the second time I had a mastectomy and reconstruction.*
At no time have I ever found the language of battle to be anything other than at least a hindrance, and at worst dangerous. It is dangerous because it divides the self. It is profoundly damaging to the psyche split the self off, into healthy and sick, into me and ‘my cancer’, into this self and that self.
Cancer is not stabbed into us, it does not come in from outside, it is not something we can ‘stand up to’ as if it were outside of us, it is not something other, that we might ‘kick its butt’. Cancer is the body making its own cells. It is me, my body, making my own cells, cells that are cancerous. (Not right now, as far as I know, but certainly this time last year.) Sure, I don’t want them, those cells that are cancerous, but they are me, they are as much me as the cells that are not cancerous, they are not OTHER. Cancer is not other than our own selves. And, on its own terms, those cancer cells are not even sick. They are doing what they do, what is in their programming to do, as well as they can. They are not ‘baddies’, they are just cells. In the case of cancer we call it mutation. And in many other cases, mutation is what we call evolution.
Now, of course, anyone WITH the disease is perfectly entitled to use whatever metaphors they choose to get through their days. Personally, I’m always keen on absolute honesty. So it has not been useful for me, when I have had cancer, to hear the disease spoken about as other. It has not been useful to me, when I have had cancer, to hear the disease spoken about as a battle. Because this is not the truth. Cancer is not other and it is not a war. (And we denigrate the seriousness of both when we elide the two.)
However, for those of us who do have the disease, have had the disease, the all-too-pervasive directive to ‘fight’, ‘resist’, ‘battle’, is as absurd as it is brutal. (And it IS brutal – we regularly agree to be cut, burned, poisoned in order to remove the disease.) But while the treatment can be brutal, and while the effects of that treatment can feel brutal, our emotional response, our language response (and what is language if not a way to convey emotional understanding?) need not also be brutal.
We can chose to be honest, simple, we can choose to use plain language rather than over-emotive language. We can choose to save our energy for living, rather than use it to add hyperbole to our descriptions of living with disease, dying of disease.
“He or she has cancer”, not “he or she is suffering with cancer”. (“suffering” is so subjective, surely the only person who gets to say they are a sufferer should be the one who perceives themselves to be suffering?)
Victim, survivor, battle, fight, war … we have better and more honest words, plainer words.
I had cancer. He is having cancer treatment. She died of cancer. They are now well.
There is nothing wrong with the simple and honest.
And for those of us who have already been through it, who now live daily with the profound awareness that we may, yet, die of cancer, simple and honest is far preferable to reminding us (as if we can ever forget) that we might yet ‘lose the battle’.
I’m not in a war. And I refuse to allow lazy journalism and cheap sentiment to send me into battle.
* Mastectomy was neither suggested nor recommended first time round, reconstruction was my choice the second time, a choice I currently, largely, regret and will, no doubt, write about when I – in my own body – have processed what reconstruction has done to my body and why I chose to have it. Right now, seven months since surgery, five months since the second surgery, and prior to at least one more (minor) surgery, it’s far too soon to work out the mass of complex feelings I have around my own, informed and educated, choice to have a chunk of my stomach made into a breast/not-breast … more later, no doubt.