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.
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