The “fight” against cancer

I really don’t feel comfortable with framing cancer treatment as a “fight” against cancer. Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of people talking about it that way, and understand why, but it doesn’t seem quite right. For me, that framing has always subtly implied that the person with cancer has an unrealistic degree of control or influence over the outcome – that their actions or attitude somehow determines what happens. This may make someone with cancer feel better if things are going well, I suppose, but it also isn’t necessarily 100% true.

Assuming you’ve read enough and asked enough questions to understand what’s happening with your type of cancer and worked with your qualified oncologists to find and agree upon a legitimate, research-based and evidence-supported treatment plan; your primary job is to follow directions. Arrive on time for your appointments, take your medications, and follow whatever instructions your medical professionals offer. If you have the energy left over, it probably doesn’t hurt to try and maintain a positive attitude, since the world continues to turn and you are still on it. Participate in research if you run out of other options. That’s about the best most people outside of the medical industry can do.

To a large extent, the outcome of these efforts depend on the type of cancer, which is just a matter of luck. To frame someone’s death from cancer as “losing the hard-fought battle against cancer” always sounds a little accusatory to me – like if the poor bastard who was unlucky enough to die of his or her illness had just “fought” a bit harder, they might have “won”. It also seems to give cancer a personality – like it’s a foe with malicious intentions, which seems kind of silly.

Screw all that. No one “loses the battle” against cancer, any more than they “win the battle” against cancer. Cancer isn’t an army, and every hardship isn’t a battle – what is it about our culture that makes us frame everything in the context of a war?

I think of cancer more like getting pneumonia or osteoporosis or an ear infection – it sucks immensely, but it’s not an unusual human experience. Lots of people get cancer. Some will survive and some, sadly, won’t.  We’re very fortunate to live in a time where treatment options are more effective than they’ve ever been in human history, improving more peoples’ odds year over year. With any luck, future generations will be even luckier.

Am I responsible for “defeating” my cancer? I didn’t cause it. I doubt I’ll be the person who cures it. My neurosurgeon’s great training and experience allowed him to remove a lot of it. I picked him out, read the research to try and select the best treatment, and follow directions (even when they’re unpleasant). Rather than a “fight” against cancer, my role feels more modest: I’m responsible for following my treatment plan, hoping for the best, and appreciating the friends and family who have cared for me the last few months.

For now, I’m most inclined to frame cancer as a huge bummer of a situation in a life similar to everyone else’s life – where some events will suck like that and others will be great and since we’re human, time is limited. If we’re smart, the unpleasant things help us appreciate the awesome things more deeply. Cancer may or may  not eventually kill me (or anyone), but the same could be said for driving my car to work every day or enjoying too much macaroni and cheese.

This does not take away from the difficulty, pain, stress, and general rottenness of cancer treatment. Chondrosarcoma treatments are less awful than the treatments for many cancers, and those who have to go through all sorts of chemotherapy (and their families), for instance, deserve serious credit for their stalwart dedication. I just think we could use some better framing to describe our admiration for their hardcore efforts.

No one lives forever, but that doesn’t make life a battleground. It makes life an opportunity and it makes even the crummiest hardships normal.  Hence the macaroni and cheese.


2 thoughts on “The “fight” against cancer”

  1. Very eloquently said Maria. The language needs to be changed. We’re all dealt a special deck of cards to play with. Some cards like cancer get a more attention than most. The dreaded “C” word has held an awful stigma and caused further suffering and isolation, especially in the past. I very much admire how you have navigated through these new changes especially with an audience. Many others have their own crosses to bare in silence. But that’s life. Play on and pass the cheese.

  2. About “fighting” cancer, it is a pretty old illness as old as humanity itself and for the bulk of that time it was seen as an ‘outside’ invader to the body so the idea of “fighting off” an attacker helped keep the patients spirits up. It is only very recently that we have been able to more full research and understand it is not a problem from without but one from within. It will take a bit but the idea of combating oneself may change the way we refer to how we deal with it.

    And for some the idea of struggling to live gives them the will to go on, it can be nothing more than a matter of personal preference in how one prolongs their survival.

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