Leavetaking: What we mean when we talk about ‘fighting cancer’
Euphemistic language simply hides the brutal truth of the disease
We use words to create the illusion of control over cancer, because we’re terrified of it. It is a metaphor for death
The lingo of cancer is more familiar to us than the disease itself. Phrases such as “fighting cancer” and “battling cancer” are casually thrown around.
The way we talk about cancer should be a method of dealing with and communicating about a difficult concept. Instead, we use as many euphemisms as we can to avoid getting to the truth of the situation. Cancer is ugly and painful and frightening. It isn’t dignified, and the person who has been diagnosed with it isn’t in charge of the situation.
I’m not arguing for a moment that mentality is unimportant. The angle from which we choose to view something will ultimately dictate how we deal with it. In instances of physical suffering, determination, perspective and the courage to overcome fear of pain are essential, but cancer lingo has gone altogether too far.
We use words to try to separate ourselves from this disease, as though verbiage will place it at a remove from us. We also use words to create the illusion of control over cancer, because we’re terrified of it. It is a metaphor for death. We swaddle ourselves in verbs, in active language, because if we don’t, we feel that cancer is something that we are passively allowing to happen to us.
There is bravery in accepting the truth; far more than there is in clinging to a comforting illusion. Depending on the kind of cancer, if a person is diagnosed early then they will undergo fear and difficult treatment, and will probably survive. But they will have to face their own mortality in a way that we spend our entire lives endeavouring not to. We have created a narrative that goes something along the lines of “us versus cancer”, or of cancer as something to “defeat”. This is misguided.
My mother is one of the unlucky people. Her diagnosis just over four months ago was a terminal one. We sat in a room and were told that she will die within a year. There are treatment options, but not any that will ultimately make a difference. This is the sort of cancer that has most people huddling in fear: that stinking, cloaked beast in the corner, slinking forth to take your life.
My mother is not “fighting a battle”. Her cancer is part of her. It was created by her body, which houses someone I love. That body’s hands picked me up when I fell over as a small child. That body’s heart beat faster when it feared for my wellbeing, and the solid “lub dub” of it beating calmed my childhood fears when I rested my head against her chest.
The cancer is another aspect of that body. Its cells started to divide erratically, and that erratic mutation in cell behaviour will cause her death. It is awful, but it is not evil. It could happen to anyone. In fact it does, all the time.
A person is not immune to it because they’re important to someone else. To presume “meaning” behind erratic cell division is obtuse.
To imbue cancer with meaning and power through our language is more so. It does not possess malign intent. It’s just a disease made more frightening because it takes lives.
We have not yet figured out how to cure cancer, and as humans we have a tendency to superimpose mysticism onto anything we don’t fully grasp. Cancer is the great bogeyman of our time. We fear it because – more than any common condition – it forces us to confront our mortality.
There’s nothing wrong with taking an active role in dealing with cancer. In fact, it’s advisable, whether the diagnosis is terminal or not. What we shouldn’t do is deify cancer and treat it with more respect than it deserves. It’s just a disease. We should talk about it in those terms. It is a function – albeit a malfunction – of the body that is diagnosed with it. Though a person is far, far more than their cancer, encouraging someone to “fight” with their own body is pointless. Undergo treatment. Take control where you can, and accept the things you can’t change.