What We Talk About When We Talk About Cancer

The phrases are familiar: “Fight like a girl!” “We can beat this disease.” “Warriors in pink!” When we talk about cancer, the language of battle is so commonly invoked that you almost don’t register the underlying metaphor unless someone points it out. I have myself, more than once, referred to “kicking cancer’s butt,” and that’s felt reasonably accurate as a description of my attitude. Those rogue cells really aren’t welcome to keep hanging out in my body. In fact, I’m very happy to report that, according to a recent mammogram and ultrasound, they’ve been all but banished, the cancer shrunken to nothing or near it. Woot!

753_breast-cancer-fight-like-a-girlStill, as surgery looms on the horizon, I’ve grown more aware of how the language of aggression, while ostensibly empowering, also pits one against one’s own body in some curious and distressing ways. My sister-in-law Lisa, a survivor, mentioned her discomfort with this language shortly after I was diagnosed. Susan Sontag, in a 1978 essay entitled “Illness as Metaphor,” describes the dilemma: “The controlling metaphors in descriptions of cancer are, in fact, drawn…from the language of warfare; every physician and every attentive patient is familiar with, if perhaps inured to, this military terminology. Thus, cancer cells do not simply multiply; they are ‘invasive’” (714). The language surrounding treatment has a similar inflection: chemotherapy is “chemical warfare, using poisons” that aim to “kill” (715).

The “military metaphor in medicine” extends back to the 1880s in reference to bacteria, but as Sontag points out, “talk of siege and war to describe disease now has, with cancer, a striking literalness and authority. Not only is the clinical course of the disease and its medical treatment thus described, but the disease itself is conceived as the enemy on which society wages war” (716). The catch is that both attack and counterattack aren’t “out there” somewhere; they take place within us.

Breast Cancer Cells
Breast Cancer Cells

After watching the powerful documentary Embrace earlier this week, a film that asks hard questions about why so many women hate their bodies, I was reminded that most of us don’t require a cancer diagnosis to declare war on all or part of ourselves. It’s made me think about the power of the language we use to describe our relationship to this illness, how it affects my ability to make peace with the changes coming to my body. Cancer cells threaten my health, and I want them gone—but there’s no way to separate them entirely from myself, my body, my breast tissue, not without additional losses. Eliminating them has and will bring collateral damage. Suddenly casting those rogue cells as the “enemy” seems more complicated.

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Personally, I’ve also struggled with the language of certainty that frequently emerges in conversations about cancer. While I know people’s intentions are to be supportive, bold declarations like “I know you will beat this” make me uncomfortable, as much or more because of the absolute underneath the “I know you will” as the aggression underscoring “beat.” Positive thinking is a powerful tool for healing, but I’ve found myself unwilling to make such absolute claims.

magic-8-ballThe main reason I resist is that none of us knows the future. That’s a fundamental truth. It isn’t that I don’t want to be healthy and cured—of course I do! But it feels like tempting fate to declare certainty in relation to a particular outcome; I don’t and can’t make predictions. I can only know the present.

And the present is complex and, frankly, not always a big shining ball of positivity. And that’s okay. Sometimes the insistence on “staying positive” feels less like encouragement than a denial of reality. I am thrilled beyond measure that the chemo shrank the mass. And: the bottoms of my feet are still numb with neuropathy, my joints still ache, and I still wear out way too fast to accomplish much of anything. As Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön writes in When Things Fall Apart, suffering is part of life. “Rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we could acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look. That’s the compassionate thing to do. That’s the brave thing to do,” she explains. “We can drop the fundamental hope that there is a better ‘me’ who will one day emerge. We can’t just jump over ourselves as if we were not there” (40).

Absolute declarations that I will be cured stake my happiness on a potential event I can’t actually control. We’re so used to privileging “hope” as a good that it’s a bit of a mind-bender to consider a different perspective. But Chödrön points out that focusing on hope casts us into the future and the stories we tell ourselves about it, robbing us, ultimately, of the present moment (40). And since hope and fear go hand in hand, to live driven by hope is also to live with fear (in this case, of recurrence) hovering just underneath the surface. It seems healthier to stay focused on the here and now.

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I do believe language has profound power to shape our experience, that mantras and affirmations can make a real difference. It’s been a challenge to find positive, empowering language beyond battle metaphors and absolutes, but here are some of the phrases I’ve been able to embrace:

This is survivable.

My body can heal.

I will be okay. I am going to be okay.

From a meditation CD a friend sent:

Thank you for teaching me to stop and listen. Thank you for reminding me what is truly important. You can go now. I know I have things to do, gifts to give, purposes to accomplish, and I require a healthy, working body for this.

And perhaps my favorite, from another (salty) survivor:

All I have to do is outlive the f-ing cancer.

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mtnstar_wordsofencouragementIf this is my life (and it is) and if my life (like all our lives) is finite, and if I don’t know its deadline (and none of us does), then how do I want to spend it? Waiting and wishing for a different kind of life, a different kind of day, a “better” one in some projected future? Or do I find a way to accept where I am in the present, since that’s all any of us really knows or has?

At the end of the film Embrace, filmmaker Taryn Brumfitt offers this advice to her daughter: Focus on what your body can do, feel, accomplish, contribute. Don’t waste a minute being at war with your body. Embrace it.

Now we’re talking. Do it today.

8 thoughts on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Cancer

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