The Case for a More Positive Approach to Naming the Cancer “Battle”

Of all of the unanswered questions swirling through my head, this is one that surfaces time and time again, and whose incessant prodding has become exhausting:

Why do we still describe cancer as a “battle” or “war”?

Christina Farr’s article on Fast Company, titled with that same question, ignited in me a deeply rooted and impassioned response, stemming from a recent, very personal and life changing experience, as I watched a once vibrant and beautiful life become dulled and quieted by the wraths of cancer.

It is this experience that has heightened my awareness and sensitivity to the language we use when describing the human condition. It is this experience that furrows my brow when I hear reference to “the war on cancer.” And it is this experience that compels me to start a conversation that can change that outdated phrase.

My mother passed away as a result of cancer in February of 2015, at just 59 years old, and through the whole years-long process I found myself fumbling over a description of her condition. Battling or Fighting seemed too harsh to describe anything that her incredibly kind soul and petite frame should have to withstand — even something as serious as cancer. Yet at the same time, it seemed appropriate as it began to ravage her body and had turned our family’s world completely upside down.

As it turns out, we were fighting. But is this the term that should be used to describe those like my mother and the challenges their families are up against?

My answer is, No.

We hear these words all the time: She’s battling cancer. He’s a real fighter. She’s a warrior.

Do we even know what we’re saying?

Those words are spoken so often that they have become a part of our vernacular; we no longer really think about the weight that they hold, we just say them.

And here’s why that is a problem: they are inherently negative.

Put yourself in the shoes of someone who has received a cancer diagnosis. Imagine hearing those words and knowing that a serious disease is right there inside of your body. That alone is enough to test even the most optimistic of beliefs. Listening to others later describe this as a battle, a war, a fight, seems like we’re setting ourselves up for a nasty, bloody, terrible future.

It is automatically negative and implies that the odds, right from the start, are not playing in our favor. And when those odds are literally pointing towards life and death, that is just hurtful.

Any treatments prescribed for someone with cancer need to be put into affect almost immediately; a whirlwind of surgeries, radiation, chemotherapy plans, and drastic diet and lifestyle changes become the new normal. Family is trained to act like pharmacists, ordering and sorting a basket full of drugs and begin dressing sutures with nurse-like precision; calendars once filled with coffee dates and birthday parties now feature CT scans, medication reminders and blood draws on a rotating schedule.

When you’re in the midst of this madness, it sure does feel like a war zone. And for many, things will indeed turn nasty, bloody and terrible. The last thing they will feel like is a warrior, and the thought of expending any more energy in putting up a “fight” after the physical and mental exhaustion that ensues is defeating in and of itself. For others, the cancer may be able to be nearly eradicated or put it at bay for a long enough time for the patient to live a full(er) life. So we probably shouldn’t set off all alarms at the onset and add unnecessary stress, worry and mental anguish simply through the way we talk about things. We’re already dealing with enough.

But I get it; I understand the war analogy. It is part of human nature to want to fight back and win. We want to be the champions of whatever we’re doing. We are hard-wired to cheer for the underdog, to roll out, ‘guns blazing’ and blood pumping, ready to take down the obstacles in our way. All of these things imply that we’re taking action — we’re fighting, damnit! But this mindset is hugely lacking in empathy, positivity, or any sort of true understanding. And to someone who’s dealing with cancer, the person whose body and mind is being directly affected, those factors that the “warrior” mentality lacks are exactly what are needed.

We must learn to consciously choose the words we use to describe a delicate situation. In this case, it’s as if we think the most important thing about a person with cancer is the cancer itself, as if the only thing that matters is that they have a disease. We must be mindful to not replace years of memories, signature personality traits or terrific legacies by attaching a harsh descriptor that represents only a short period of one’s life.

I’ll never forget my mother telling me, “I don’t want to be a cheerleader. I don’t want to be the ‘face’ of cancer.” She wanted to deal with things as needed in order to be healthy again. But more than that, she wanted to stay true to who she was. She was not cancer. Who she was, was a beautifully kind, genuine, loving, understanding, accepting soul whose presence and actions made a deep and lasting impact on the lives that she touched. And that is exactly how she is remembered today, without much mention of cancer at all.

I think it’s about time we change that age-old phrase that calls cancer a “war” or “battle” and really start thinking about the power of our words. Perhaps simply saying that one is “living with cancer” is a more accurate substitute. After all, isn’t that what we all want to do is truly live, no matter the circumstance?

Let’s not define our lives by the amount of “battles” we are fighting, but instead by the experiences we’re sharing. That’s what I am focusing on. And as I continue to think back on my mother’s life and our time together, I remember all of it with reverence, and none of it with fighting.

I invite you to share some ideas for renaming the “war” and “battle” on cancer in a more positive light, one that is truly reflective of the lives behind the disease. Recommend and Share this post. Talk about it with your friends. Connect with me on Twitter @VanessaCStella. Or just think about it.

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