Sunday, August 28, 2011

Speaking of cancer

A column in today's New York Times, headlined "Cancer: Fighting Words," revisits the topic of combat metaphors about people with cancer, as in saying that they are fighting, or battling an invader.

The author, Daniel Menaker, a recurrent cancer patient, says he supports "the demilitarization of cancer talk." He says it seems "more calming, less victimizing," to think of the disease as a problem to be worked on. He says that by putting the disease into the context of a fight, those who die might be considered losers, and he quotes a blogger who asked, "Does it mean that if I croak it's my fault?"

On the other hand, Menaker writes that he understands how it got this way – cancer does invade different parts of the body while other diseases stand still. And he gets that warfare language helps provide motivation for the task ahead.

He reasonably suggests that there is room for looking at it both ways, but falls short in suggesting "a rational, problem-solving approach" in public discourse and a martial attitude in more private or interior contexts.

His proposed segregation of attitudes doesn't work for me.

When I was battling for my life, according to this author I should have said I had "a problem" while being quiet about my knowledge that an "invader" (a military term) was seriously threatening me.

It was more than a problem. I wasn't dealing with leukemia the way I dealt with my foot problems.

I do think that in using warfare terminology, people need to be more clear that a patient is a not loser when treatment fails.

Also, most everyone talks about the need for a positive attitude, but some go overboard on this. Of course a positive attitude helps, but if you don't have it every day, or if cancer gets the upper hand, does this mean you haven't been cheerful or strong enough?

I think often about my beautiful friend Ann, who died of lung cancer in her 40s and who was one of the most positive, cheerful people I ever knew. Sure she complained about things, but she was just naturally an "up" person.

When I hear this garbage about "positive attitude or else," or detect an implication that death means not having fought hard enough, I think of Ann and know that's not how it works.

She survived much longer than expected, and even on days when she felt sick, if you asked her how she was, she'd say, "Good." She'd lengthen out the word on bad days, but that was the only sign she often gave.

So yes, modify fighting metaphors when appropriate, and leave room for people who prefer a problem-solving approach, but don't tell cancer patients to talk openly about their "problem" while whispering about their fight.


Elayne said...

Great post Ronnie, and something I have been hearing a lot lately. Someone said "if anyone can beat this it is you, you are so strong". I immediately thought of my 38 yr. old ( very strong) brother-in-law who passed away 4 yrs ago from Leukemia.It's exactly what everyone said about and to him as well.
So my first thought was, well, Jim was much stronger than me.
We can "fight' by doing what we can to maintain a healthy lifestyle and yes a positive attitude helps. But ultimately, it is not our decision.

Anonymous said...

Runderful Ronni,

My Mother adored you -- and i still have the book, The Winter Palace, which you insribed to her when she had cancer...

i remember how awful the attitude people were -- Norman Vincent Peale, the founder of The Power of Positive Thinking, gave my Mother's funeral address...

Many said, including your friend from Vassar, that her attitude was not positive enough....

Sorry, if the founder of the power of positive thinking could mourn and mention my mother's valiant struggle, how dare anyone else throw the stones of judgement!>>

Sorry, you have just written such a great piece that it strikes the deepest chord --


Ann said...

Well said.

Denise gl said...

His article resonated with me, too. I sometimes felt (and still feel while I suffer the side effects of my daily "poison pill") so much pressure to be "a trouper" and "a fighter" when I was really struggling to just get through the horrors of breast cancer treatment. The pressure to be positive and strong all the time would sometimes end up being one more thing to cope with.

PJ said...

Well put Ronni. Having cancer is lonely, bitter, frustrating and painful. Even worse.

One of my pet peeves in cancer discussions/interviews is when the patient says cancer made them a better person. That might be true for them, but what if you have/had cancer and it didn't make you better, more loving, patient,your life more meaningful? I think in many ways my life has improved since I was diagnosed. But I'd gladly have my old self back, without having experienced leukemia.

Renn @ The Big C and Me said...

Terrific writing and insight! Happy to have stumbled upon your blog. I've come to the conclusion that only those who have walked in our shoes can fully understand the depths of our struggle. And I reckon we shouldn't expect them to.

I also get what you're saying on the "stay positive" front. I've come to a conclusion on that one too: People need us to stay positive so *they* can stay positive with regard to our cancer. It's really about them, not us. And if we choose to 'be' positive, we have to do it for *us*, not them.

Cancer, of course, doesn't care how we feel. It's got a mind of its own — just like the rest of us. ;-)

Nelle said...

This entry really stirred my emotions. When I had cancer I had a very close friend who bought a book by Louise Hayes (not sure about the author's name) but it said that positive thinking kept you well and negative thinking made you sick. I was furious. I called the friend and we got into a big argument and our friendship was never the same for me. I felt I was being judged and blamed at a time I needed empathy and understanding. I detest books that promote that thinking, particularly when they try to say cancer is a result of negativity. Great entry Ronni.

Anonymous said...

Dearest Runni,

again, this is such an important issue, that i would urge you to write an article -- All of the comments have shown that you have touched a chord -- i do not agree with the idea that only cancer survivors can empathize -- (Renn) -- it's not only cancer patients who get this moronic positive judgment! - when i was crippled, as you will recall, with severe ruptured discs, a friend had the nerve to give me a book about healing back pain with thinking! Sure, physically damaged pain! just think, and Rise Up Back Patient!

Great piece! Spot on! Spread the word...xop