We cancer patients get a lot of pressure from society about surviving cancer – we must fight until the end, even if it means we fight against ourselves. We’re often considered “winners” if we survive, but if we die from a cancer, we have “lost.” At least that’s the perception the military language has created.
Why are people so preoccupied about proving something? Why can’t we just accept that death is part of life too, regardless of the cause?
When we die from cancer, cancer also dies with us.
We want to be so detached from death that even when our bodies have expired, we want to place blame. Our bodies aren’t perfect. They can fail us at any age.
What prompted me to write about this was a message I saw from a family member a few weeks ago stating that she was supporting those in our family “battling” cancer as well as those who have “lost the battle” against it. I am not dismissing her good intentions, but I felt a little pressured. We all have an expiration date and we can’t control the outcome so it’s unfair to put such weight on us.
It isn’t helpful to patients to label their cancer as a “battle.” I know some patients use it as a form of self-cheering, which is acceptable because one must do what helps them cope. You can’t tell a cancer patient how to do their cancer, only they know best. The down side to this is that the military language has become part of the cancer culture, and that makes it unfair to patients who do not appreciate it. I personally never use it because I find it hard to separate cancer from me. It’s my DNA. I would feel like I was at war with myself if I called my cancer a battle.
I also don’t feel like a winner because I survived my cancer. I feel lucky.
It’s sad to me that our lives will eventually come to an end whether we are ready or not. It makes me even sadder that some die at a very young age. I am only in my 30’s and already facing a life-threatening illness. I have no choice. I can’t control what my body does. What I can control is what it eats and the amount of exercises it does, but just like raising a child, you do what you can and wish for the best outcome.
How is a terminal patient supposed to feel when he/she will be remembered as the one who lost his/her battle against cancer? What about their loved ones? I’ve felt hopeless, helpless and sad when a family member dies from cancer and I hear people describe it in such terms. What hopes does that leave for me when I fear the same kind of ending? Do not call my cancer a “battle.” I want to be remembered as someone who lived her life the best way she could under the uncontrolled and unexpected circumstances she was given, and hopefully, someone who inspired others along the way. Or not.
We don’t have a choice when it comes to mortality. Some will go sooner than others. And it certainly doesn’t mean you lost to anything. It means you’ve been diagnosed with life, and with that, comes mortality.
I’m living my life just like anyone else is. I get joy from life. Despite my cancer diagnosis, I still get up in the mornings to breathe the fresh air, to laugh, to cry and to create more memories. I allow myself to go through all the emotions life inspires. Every cancer patient I’ve known does the same.
I am aware I will face mortality one day – don’t know when or how – but if the cause is cancer, I hope my love ones would see it as what it simply is: my body has expired. At the end, there will be no winners because my cancer dies with me too.
This was, in many ways, a hard read for me and I think it has so much to do with where I am in this process. Yes, we all die. Something or other is going to get us in the end. Some sooner. Some later. I don’t imagine I’ll ever be ready for that day. There’s too much to see in the world. But I can’t reconcile the fact that my cancer might come back and take me from my child, who deserves to have his mother. I can not find a way to be ok with that. I don’t think any mother should have to feel that way, even if it is a part of life.
I agree with the whole “militarization” of the language of cancer. But I also wonder what would be better? More appropriate? I’m not saying that it isn’t out there but maybe it’s so ingrained in me that I can’t think of anything else. So I use the language. I call it a battle. But if I died and someone said that I “lost” I’d come back and haunt them. Anyone who fights cancer is never a loser. Ever.
Carrie, death is a very difficult topic to talk about. It’s hard for me to accept my mortality as well. We are also young. I think that no matter how much we try to see death as something natural, it’s always going to be emotionally and psychologically painful.
As for the military language in cancerland, I am OK if people simply say “she died of *insert cause*” or “she passed away” instead of “she lost her battle against cancer.” Yes, we will face mortality one day, but I wish we both die of old age. xx
I was diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic breast cancer just last year. I have to say, though, that as hard as that is to assimilate, I don’t see death as losing anything, but as gaining everything. I will gain Heaven and how can that be a bad thing?
That said, don’t sign me up for boat just yet!
Katy, I am sorry you are now dealing with stage 4. To be completely honest, I wish I didn’t have such a hard time accepting my mortality. It’s just a hard thing to process for many. I assume age may play a role. But I do agree once you reach a level of acceptance, you also gain some level of peace.
Wishing you well. And thank you for stopping by.
another great up-to-point and meaningful post Rebecca 🙂
a) the language is yes annoying, especially the term “losing battle”, as if resisting or fighting (with a mental determination to heal?) would be enough to heal and recover from cancer (I also understand that the loved ones would like this to happen to the patient, who would not?), but if the patient cannot heal/recover, it is on the patient’s shoulder. how drastic? we still lose patients to this disease and often times against their wishes. The real battle we are losing is research funding and finding cure and effective treatment for this disease.
b) We have been diagnosed with life!!!! what a genius sentence – I loved it.
I guess the points a and b are linked to each other somehow that we do not want to die, we do not want our loved ones to die; thus we not only ignore it but also think that we can prevent it; the latter one may be possible by health care and some luck in biology and others in cancer (sadly, not all patients but a portion..). I wish it was possible for all patients to recover from this disease…. Better yet, it was eradicated altogether.. alas….
I have been meaning to get my will done for many years now. I did not. it bothers me each year when I remind myself that it is a lot better to have it than not. Reason? because I felt like if I make my will, I will be ready to die, and then I will die…… Human psychology and our/my approach to life and death is interesting 🙂
I agree with Carrie that the alternative language does not exist, at least not to my knowledge…. I use the term “survivor” (with no negative intention) for long-term survivors (or with no negative intention for those who did not recover from this disease and died), but I know there are objections to this term too. I keep wondering what is the alternative that will remove the objected meaning but still describe these individuals? Considering that up to 45% of the north american populations will be diagnosed with cancer and a portion will be free of it after a while we better find something that will help our patients, their family and friends express themselves and their experiences and journeys adequately and freely. I cannot offer alternative words right now, but I know there are some suggestions out there. Maybe we can work on them…
the hurdle I guess is that we ignore cancer as much as we ignore death, until we face it. Neither our language is ready nor our emotional, social, and health care systems are knowledgeable about it, ready to face it. It happens to us or a loved one and we all of a sudden have all these feelings of anxiety, fear, sadness, uncertainty etc. and our world turns upside down… I believe many people have good intentions to help and support the patients and their families, but I also know that neither our knowledge nor language/communication is there to make it an efficient one yet. The more those people affected by cancer speaks, the more we understand, though. I believe one day we all be in a better position.
sorry this is a very looong comment 🙂 cancer makes me think so many things that I could not help writing. I am not even sure what I wrote has any relevance to your post anymore, but hey you certainly write great and I enjoy not only reading but also thinking about them… 🙂 best
No reason to feel sorry. I appreciate you taking the time to comment. And what you wrote is relevant.
Mortality is hard to accept. I assume the younger you are, the more difficult it is. Maybe.
I guess my thing is, why do we need labels at all? You have people who have “survived” many other things in life but we don’t have special names for those. As for the military language, this can be avoided because for all the other diseases, we don’t use the “lost the battle” statement. We simply say “died of” or “passed away”. I would be OK with those words, but not the word “battle,” when I simply didn’t have a choice.
I agree most people have good intentions. I also think it’s important to understand the impact such language has on us. It is true people ignore cancer (and death) until they have to face it, which contributes to the gap.
Thank you for your kind words and for your support.
It’s hard to talk about death in our society, we avoid using the ‘d’ words. You probably know by now how I feel about the ‘lost her courageous battle’ talk. Mostly, I loathe the war metaphors. But at the same time, I understand how some of them work for some people. I just avoid using them because using them seems to insinuate the person didn’t fight hard enough. Life is complicated. So is death. But then again, they’re not. They just are what they are. Another thought-provoking post. Thank you.
Hi Nancy! Death is def. a hard topic to talk about. I know you dislike those war metaphors too. I agree they insinuate the person didn’t fight hard enough which is one reason I don’t use them either. I also realize they work for some but as long as we communicate our wishes, I think people would be supportive.
I hope you have a great weekend. xx
Thanks for this Rebecca, as mentioned above he topic of death is something we avoid and I don’t blame anyone for softening it with whatever metaphor they want. It feels strange but though my medical record lists me as dying at least 2 times before my last heart surgery I don’t know what I experienced was real or what other people experience.
Can’t say I wouldn’t write about it someday except it’s not something for living people to know because it doesn’t mean anything. It takes and offers nothing back.
As for battle terminology, PTSD is also known as “Battle Mind” and I think it’s worth comparing with the experience of mortality in cancer and it too might be a place we just don’t go, at least publicly.
Hi Scott! To me “died of” is softer than “lost the battle against” (may have something to do with me living next to a huge cemetery for 14 years and seeing processions go by 2-3 times a week). At least it keeps it consistent with all the other deaths and as something more natural. It also doesn’t insinuate I didn’t try hard enough. I know people’s intentions aren’t bad but the language creates a different perception in my eyes. But I understand some people do not mind the metaphors. I guess it’s best to let our wishes be known.
I have thought about the “mental battle” in relationship to cancer. That’s a good observation. I understand there’s a complexity about this disease that inspires such metaphors, but I still have issues with this psychology (or mindset).
I would be interested to read about those experiences you mentioned.
I think the battle language will persist–I mean some openly embrace it even as they are dying (thinking of that MTV star who “battled” ovarian cancer a couple of times). But I wonder if maybe that tide is turning?
In any case, I am beginning to think of it differently. I don’t think the war metaphors are real–the way they are used in illness language (because the war language is not used exclusively in cancer), seem cartoonish–not like actual military speak. I got that idea some time ago listening to 2 Iraq veterans give an interview promoting their book about their experience. Just a thought for a future blog post.
Wendi, I agree with you this will continue because it’s already part of a culture, and like you mentioned, even patients embrace it. You also made an interesting point by calling it “not real.” Now you got me curious about your future post — looking forward to reading it.
As of now, all I can do is let everyone know what my wishes are.
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On the other hand, the military reveres those who die in the name of battle and gives them an honorable send-off. Those who come back maimed and injured are called heroes. Actually, I find that super weird, probably in the same way I find it weird when others call us “brave.” To use military language, we’ve been drafted. We didn’t sign up. We get through as best we can because there’s no other option available.
Eileen, I sure didn’t sign up for this! The word “brave” is another label I dislike. I don’t consider myself brave for dealing with my cancer and I share your reasoning. I had no other choice other than to take the treatment. Wish we would have had other options.
I hope you’re having a relaxing weekend.
I don’t like the battle language either, because it just doesn’t fit. But I think people use it because we seem to lack adequate language to express the reality of cancer in a way that doesn’t make people feel powerless or mortal. And maybe that’s what’s wrong with our culture. Disease happens. Cancer happens. Natural disaster happens. You never hear anyone talk about people ‘battling’ the effects of a hurricane.
Great post. xoxo, Kathi
Kathi, you’re right. It’s hard to face pain, and if people have the option to avoid it, they would.About natural disasters, coming from an island I can say those can be horrifying! But still no one used military language to describe their effects.
Thank you for your support. xoxo
I, too, have difficulty with the military language. It just doesn’t seem to fit.
I tend to see life as a journey, and this part of the journey just happens to have cancer, making it rougher. I know others don’t like the journey metaphor, but thanks to reading Pilgrim’s Progress as a kid, I was using “journey” long before cancer.
I have stage 4. Cancer will be with me the rest of my life, however long or short it is. When I die, I will not have lost a battle, but instead, finally ended my journey and arrived at my home in Heaven, where there is no cancer, so if you do use the military terms, cancer will be the loser.
However, I don’t want to rush it, I want to be around to watch my grandbabies growing up.
Elizabeth, I am sorry you are dealing with this cancer mess. I wish diseases didn’t exist and that each transition we face in life was a lot smoother. Like you, I hold on to my faith. We do our best, one day at a time.
Wishing you the best outcome possible. xx
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You write so well, and have such an incredible perspective on the experiences many of us face. Thank you 😄
Thank you for your kind words. I enjoy reading your blog. Wishing you well, always. xx
Hi Rebecca! I’m finally catching up on your terrific blog; I’ve been out of the blogosphere for awhile and glad to reconnect. Anyway, this post is spot on! Very insightful. I also dislike the lost the battle and won the battle phrases for the same reasons you do. Like you, I feel lucky. But as long as we are alive, life is guaranteed to no one. Dying is a part of life. I think people just want to feel like we have some control over whether we live or die, but these are not in our control.
Thank you for your kind words, Beth. It’s good to take a break from time to time. We all need to recharge. I agree control is a big deal for all of us. Having cancer makes us lose some of it and that’s what makes survivorship so challenging. The military language makes the experience more overwhelming. I wish we can stop using it. Thank you for commenting on this post. Glad to have you back!