War, what is it good for? Well, for overcoming cancer apparently. From the moment I shared my cancer diagnosis I was surrounded by war metaphors. I was told I was battling cancer, I was a warrior, I could win my battle, and I would beat cancer. I was told I was waging war and if I fought hard enough I would emerge victorious. Defining an experience with cancer using battle language seems to be the societal norm. For many, the notion that you “go to war” with your cancer defines the journey with this disease.
The idea that you can conquer cancer, that with heroic fighting you will win the battle, works well for some people. I understand that it may help to adopt a war mindset as someone deals with this disease. Of course, I want to be a hero too. At least sometimes I do. Mostly though, I just want to nap, just want the pain to go away, and just want to feel better. I often don’t feel like soldiering on and I am seldom up to being in a battle.
I get the need to find a way to articulate the fear, the pain, the suffering, and the uncertainty, and it is only natural to turn to metaphor to both help to understand and to communicate the cancer experience. The science is complex, the treatment options varied and how each person responds to the disease differs widely, making coming to terms with cancer difficult. It is easier to use a simple war metaphor to explain what is happening than to try to explain the details. “I am battling cancer” is easier to articulate than a long explanation of your specific cancer, treatment regimes, side-effects and likely outcomes.
While “battling cancer” seems to be the prevailing metaphor for dealing with this disease, it has not resonated with me. I know that it works very well for some and I have no argument with all of the cancer warriors, warrior princesses and superheroes for whom this helps with their struggle, but I wonder if there is a downside. Does the idea of winning a war with cancer imply that those who don’t are losers? John Diamond, the British journalist and author who died of throat cancer in 2001 seems to have thought so. In his book C – Because Cowards Get Cancer Too…, he says “My antipathy to the language of battles and fights has nothing to do with pacifism and everything to do with a hatred for the sort of morality which says that only those who fight hard against their cancer survive it or deserve to survive it – the corollary being that those who lose the fight deserved to do so.”
Early in my diagnosis I was inspired by a blog written by Dr. Kate Granger, a physician with a terminal cancer diagnosis. She knows that she is not going to “win” her battle, so does the use of this metaphor impact her ability to “fight it”? In an article in the Guardian she writes “As a cancer patient who will die in the relatively near future, I believe rather that instead of reaching for the traditional battle language, [life] is about living as well as possible, coping, acceptance, gentle positivity, setting short-term, achievable goals, and drawing on support from those closest to you.”
Aria Jones in a letter on McSweeney is much more emphatic that this language can be harmful. She says that describing cancer as a war implies that “either adversary can win – not the case with some cancers Are you truly comfortable telling a cancer patient that, if his cancer doesn’t GTFO stat, it’s because he didn’t try hard enough?”
“I hope you are no longer inclined to compound the challenges facing those of us with cancer by calling us losers.”
For those of us for whom the battle metaphor doesn’t work, what is another way of looking at this? We still need a way to contextualize and communicate our experience. How do I describe living with cancer, working with a team of professionals and a community of care givers to become healthy again or to manage the disease as it progresses? I am in no way implying that you should enjoy having cancer; cancer sucks, but it doesn’t have to be a war with winners, losers, battles and constant fighting. I struggle enough and many days I don’t want to wage war, I just want to find some calm and peace in my day. To me the war metaphor implies that taking a nap, seeking comfort, making new friendships and finding humour are out of place, that I should be fighting ceaselessly rather than laughing and finding peace.
For me, the idea of this being a journey works better than it being a war. When I started my blog, after being diagnosed with chordoma, a rare bone cancer, I used language like “battle with cancer” but quickly changed to “journey with cancer” as it fit more with the meandering, sometimes bewildering, sometimes frustrating, and confusing path that I was on, a path that was more often waiting and recovering than battling or fighting. Writing on kevinmd.com, Rob Ruff writes of the journey metaphor: “With this image, having an illness takes us on a trip, a journey that will be marked by twists and turns, ups and downs, unexpected detours, smooth stretches of roadway, seemingly impassable rocky paths, enemies that threaten us as well as loved ones who support us. One is often changed even transformed by a journey. We learn lessons along the way, lessons we may never have learned if we hadn’t been set on this challenging path. We weigh what we need to take and what is better left behind. Sometimes, we have to abandon items we thought we would need but don’t, traveling lighter as we go. Storms may arise which blow us far off course, off the map we’d been using to guide us, leaving us lost in an unknown land.”
“Yet we can, with effort and assistance, chart a new course and regain our bearings. A journey provides us (and our loved ones) with lasting memories (rather than the regrets of a “battle” that was “lost”). On a journey, we can appreciate the beauty we encounter and have deep conversations with those who travel alongside us (instead of the chaos and conflict that characterize a battlefield, strewn as it so often is with the destruction and detritus of war.) Long and difficult journeys wear us out, and sometimes we don’t know if we have it in us to keep on going. The journey may end well, bringing us to our desired destination. Or it may end before we expect it to; long before we reach the hoped for goal. Either way, one doesn’t win or lose a journey but rather takes it a step at a time, trying to keep on going as best we can, watching for where the road takes us, hoping that in the end it leads us home.”
Like Ruff, the journey metaphor fits much better for me. It allows me to make some sense of my cancer and gives me permission to enjoy my recovery and find humour where I can. If my cancer comes back, if it gets the upper hand, it will be another phase of my journey. I hope it won’t mean that I am a loser or didn’t fight hard enough.
What do you think? Are you comfortable with the war metaphor? Has it helped you or a loved one to be stronger in their challenges? Does it work for you?
I highly recommend John Diamond’s book C – Because Cowards Get Cancer Too… Vermilion Press, 1998
Dr Kate Granger’s writing can be found at:
Aria Jones’ open letter on McSweeney is at: http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/an-open-letter-to-people-who-use-the-battle-metaphor-for-other-people-who-have-the-distinct-displeasure-of-cancer
Rob Ruff’s blog post is at: