Wednesday, February 10, 2010


You see it in the papers all the time. In the news section, it’s “cancer victim.” In the obits, it’s the “victim” who “lost his/her valiant battle against cancer.”

How did such metaphors become our default language? Why not “Joe Blow, who has cancer…” or “Jane Doe, who’s presently cancering…”? If there must be an obituary, I’d like to see, for a change, “…coexisted with cancer as long as he could.”

When we view people who have cancer (or any other serious diagnosis) as victims, we coat them in helplessness. And if treatment is battle, then eventual death is inevitably defeat.

Fortunately, other perspectives are available. Matter of fact, hardly anyone I know who has a serious illness thinks of himself or herself as a victim. They express all kinds of takes. “I didn’t say, ‘Why me?’ when I was diagnosed,” said one. “I said, ‘Why not me?’” Some see it as, while no picnic, a challenge. Some accept the disease as a kind of symbiont, some as a minor bump in their road. A few are certain they brought it on themselves (victim, then, or perpetrator?). And of course, there are plenty of interpretations I’ve never encountered.

How do you “battle” a disease like cancer, anyway? Sure, you get oncological treatment aimed at killing errant cells. But is killing your major thrust or do you attend more to living fully in your measure of days? A friend who’s survived twenty-two years with stage four lung cancer—and is currently taking no treatment—tells me, “I’m not into killing anything. I don’t have the energy for it. I just let the cancer do its thing, and enjoy the life quality I can.”

Besides, the war metaphor is repulsive to a (hopefully growing) number of people. A friend who’s a Quaker found she couldn’t do the Simonton imagery exercise in which Pac-men chew up cancer cells. Instead, she “saw” sunlight inflate the cells and lift them gently away from her.

In considering approaches to sickness and its treatment, one size definitely doesn’t fit all. To be truly therapeutic is to honor people’s preciously individual views.

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