Cancer is not a fight. It's an illness. Some people don't get better. Period.
Cancer doesn't operate on our terms, and that makes people very uncomfortable. And so there are those who have the propensity to create a mythology to cover up the realities of the disease, in order to apply an idealized version of it to mesh with our moral code or cultural viewpoints. It's a selfish thing to do, and it doesn't fool anyone. For example, there are no heroes when it comes to cancer. There are people who live, and there are people who die. Sometimes there are reasons, sometimes there aren't. Sometimes it makes sense. Mostly it doesn't. As Xeni Jardin has said, "Lots of people suffer through treatment in pursuit of more life. Some cancers don't respond. Some of us die. We're not heroes or failures." There are too many people who are lauded for surviving a disease they have no control over, and so many who are forgotten because they didn't.
Recently I found out that my first survivor role model has opted to end his treatment. I have never met him. But he was the first young adult cancer survivor I came across after I was diagnosed, and I followed his progress intently, possibly even to distract myself from own treatment. He accomplished a great deal in his life, and I think that he's a hero. He isn't a hero because he survived cancer for so long, and he isn't a hero because he's dying now. It isn't because of his attitude or perspective, or the overwhelming courage with which he chooses to meet his fate. All of those things are commonly said about cancer survivors. It's nonsense. No one is courageous by choice. We are courageous because we don't want to die. None of us can say that we know what it means to give up, either, which is another misguided argument. "Well Jim will fight hard because he knows what it means if he gives up." Jim has no idea, and neither do you. Truth is, we just don't want to find out.
This man is a hero because, in the absence of cancer, he would have lived his life the same way -- in the service of others. Because he would have found a way to make the world a better place regardless of whether or not he was ever diagnosed with a terminal illness. Heroes are people who embody the idea that the needs and sufferings of others are more worthy to address than our own. People who know that they can cope with their own lot in life as long as they know they've done their part in making things a little easier for those who have it worse. Some people live solely for the purpose of helping others. This man is one of them. He has fought, and continues to fight a system he knows firsthand to be broken. He carries the torch for change, knowing full well that he himself is beyond help, and anything he accomplishes will not serve to benefit him.
If you think someone is a hero for surviving cancer, or courageous, or inspiring, then you're part of the problem. You're doing it wrong. Anyone can survive cancer. And anyone can die from it. You want to sell your book, or promote your movie with a heavy sugar coating of mythology wrapped around the serious, ugly core of a terrible disease; that's fine. Leave me out of it.
Respect those who give back. Respect them more if they do it without any promise of a return. I don't care what disease they have or don't have.
Oh thank you. Thank you so much. I have been saying the same thing since I was diagnosed in 2007. Yes.ReplyDelete
I'm glad you like the piece. I understand the desire to assign militaristic language to disease, because it grants you the illusion of more control over your circumstances. But it completely distorts reality, and exponentially victimizes those who don't get better.Delete
My father died of cancer two years ago too. I always thought it was wrong if I/anyone said "he lost to cancer", because I don't see why it had to be a battle in the first place..if all it takes for a cancer patient to be called a hero is a remission or boob removal or the fortunate cells-returning-to-normal-state thing.ReplyDelete
Thanks for saying so. I'm very sorry to hear about your father. It's hard to be caught in the middle of a "battle" that's pushed on you by others. I never signed up to fight a battle. And I never felt very much like I was fighting anything. I only felt like I was trying to survive every day, and there was nothing I could do about it either way. The culture really needs to change here to reflect the facts. There are no winners or losers when it comes to cancer. Even if you make it to remission, there are so many physical, psychological, and emotional issues shared between you and your loved ones.Delete
THANK YOU FOR WRITING THIS! BOTH MY PARENT DIED OF CANCER IN THE LAST 8 YEARS, AND I'M TIRED OF THE "CANCER SURVIVOR" METAPHOR. CANCER IS NOT A REALITY COMPETITION, DAMMIT!ReplyDelete
It really isn't a competition. Unfortunately, the society we live in tries very hard to make it out to be. That way, everyone knows that if they try hard enough, they can "win" against cancer. Sadly, that isn't how it works.Delete
I am very glad that I got to read this thanks to Kristen Bell's Twitter. My blood boils when someone says that a person has "beat" cancer, as if it's a game, and their team won. There is so much that goes into the disease, and its effects on people and lives, and "winning" isn't one of them. Thank you so much for writing this.ReplyDelete
Thanks so much for the kind words. I don't feel like I won anything, personally. I feel like I was very, very lucky.Delete
this is just fantastic.ReplyDelete
Beautifully written. And so true. I hate, completely hate it when someone says "so and so lost the battle against cancer." No. No they didn't. (Also, I tend to think the person didn't lose the battle, science did because we can't figure out how to prevent these deaths.)ReplyDelete
Exactly. It isn't anyone's fault that we don't yet have the technology to cure cancer. But because of this, we're all losing.Delete
Eloquent and so true. Thank you.ReplyDelete
Thank you for reading.Delete
Thank you for a well said statement. I really detest metaphors of any kind when it comes to describing cancer. I am not a warrior don't call me a shero. Worse fighting a battle for my life. So that means once I die I failed even in death.Nor am I brave I'm scared out of my witts..ReplyDelete
We have not beat cancer we have barely tapped it in the butt! Once again Thanks.....Alli...
Thanks Alli. I agree, this is scary stuff. And no one has the right to tell you how you should face it.Delete
I survived cancer. I never thought I 'waged a battle' or anything like that. I just showed up. And if I would have 'lost my battle' it would have been a draw because the cancer would have died with me.ReplyDelete
Well said. That's an amazing point.Delete
I was the fife and drum corps in this "battle" - I could try to cheer myself on, but the real fighters in this game of metaphors was my treatment and oncologists. My role was to be there, that's it. I've been fighting the phrase "beat cancer" - because the alternative is "lost the battle", which seems like a failure. Words matter. - AllieReplyDelete