Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Some Thoughts On War Metaphors And Cancer

This post is in response to a question proffered by Liz Szabo in a private discussion group. Liz asked:
Everyone seems to hate the use of war metaphors to talk about cancer. Which terms should replace "fighting cancer," "the war on cancer," or "lost the battle with cancer?"

War Metaphors Worked For Me...

War metaphors were the one and only thing that sustained me when I used them to get through the hell of cancer three separate times. 

At age 29 — my first diagnosis — the only way to make it through my terror at each and every session of chemotherapy and radiation was to literally grit my teeth and all but spit out my silent, continuous loop war cry: 

"Kill Those Cells (But Don't Kill Me), Kill Those Cells (But Don't Kill Me), Kill Those Cells (But Don't Kill Me)." 

Photo credit: Henry Hustava

In response to this memory, my arms, legs, stomach muscles, chest, throat, cheekbones, toes, fingernails, and what feels like every cell in my body have just fused into a wall of fury.

I need a moment to remind myself to breathe. 

In the past few years, thanks to my involvement in advocacy which has connected me with people far wiser than myself, I have come to seriously question my use of fighting terminology in light of the larger social/cultural/historical context, viz, the "war on cancer" etc.

On the one hand, all my questioning led me back to the certainty of who I am as a person, what my nature is. 

It is and always has been that of a fighter. 

Long before I ever was diagnosed with cancer, I was fighting back against many devastating life circumstances, from my earliest childhood. So, to a certain degree, that battle language works for me. 

... Until They Didn't (But They Still Kinda Did)

On the other hand, unfortunately, there is no place in the war mindset for the concept of healing. This, along with what is fashionable to call "toxic masculinity," reinforces the stigma, shame, and what at times seems like deliberate ignorance around PTSI (I am exploring the feel of the term Post Traumatic Stress INJURY vs Disorder), a common casualty of any kind of "war." 

War inflicts trauma. Trauma, especially when left untreated, often inflicts post traumatic stress injury.

War metaphors helped me claw through diagnosis and treatment, but they did not help me heal.

War On Cancer

I get the Why for the term "war on cancer." It's short, forceful, and was useful at the time to rally people and funding. Did it work as well as hoped? Well, we're not quite there yet, are we? 

Like all things political, it is a big catchphrase that has very little to do with the nuances and intricacies of reality. (I learned a lot about the context of the inception of that term from reading Siddhartha Mukherjee's Emperor Of All Maladies.) 

Interesting quote from Hutch News article: "Nixon's War On Cancer: Why It Mattered"

Cancer is not one thing. It is an almost infinite multiplicity of things, and that is part of the problem. To this day, a vast majority of people still think that there is this one thing called cancer and there is or there is going to be a cure for "it."

So often, when we declare a war on a thing, we come from a position of arrogance. That position is certainly helpful in mustering support for the endeavor, but it can have a fatal flaw. The flaw of disrespecting and underestimating the enemy. The flaw of laziness. 

Maybe we have not yet won this war on cancer because too much time and attention are spent on hype rather than on the reality of the magnificent complexity of this lethal disease.


Alongside that, I have also come to understand that I am and always have been (from earliest childhood) an expert at survival — it goes hand in hand with my fighter nature. I do not sit well, however, thinking of myself as a "cancer survivor." As I have said many times, I am still trying to survive survival

Survival does not do justice to the reality of what happens when cancer treatment ends (IF it ends: I share the anger and frustration about the fact that "survivor" completely excludes, erases, and ignores people with metastatic disease). 

If you are a breast cancer early stager, you will never know if your cancer will recur. So you are not cured. Have you really survived?

According to Merriam Webster, maybe you have:

Yes, we remain alive, we live on, we continue to function (But prosper? Maybe not so much....). This is not good enough for me. Is this — "Woohoo! I continue to function!" — what we celebrate?

If you are surviving, what is your quality of life? 

If the goal is *just* to survive — and it seems like it is, given, at the very least, in breast cancer culture, the nauseating shero worship afforded to "survivors" — then, if you have "survived," you get to shout "yay!" You are done and you go home with your pink pharma-logo'd backpack full of useless pink clutter.


"What's The Good Cancer?"

Recently, a highly intelligent, well-meaning, and dead-serious person who knows my life asked me: "What's the good cancer?" 

Eyes bulging, brow flexed, I stared back, speechless. 

Then I managed a: "Wait, what???" 

The person elaborated: "You know, what are the good cancers? The ones that people are cured of. The ones with the highest odds of survival?"

That question, right there sums up the damage inflicted on all of us by the glib use of misleading terminology and the attending glorification of the myth of survival.

Part of my reply included snark that escaped my self-control: "Ummm, so, like, I have "survived" cancer three times, and you know my life. Do you think that I had the good cancer? Yes, I am alive. But what have I endured, what have I lost, what have I suffered? What am I still enduring?

I went on to explain that given the magnitude of the diagnosis itself (regardless of cancer type or stage), given the magnitude of the cultural and societal baggage around the term "cancer," and given what I have learned over my 20+ years of interactions with so many individuals marked by cancer, be it "Stage Zero DCIS" or "Stage IV Whatever," I could confidently affirm that there is always collateral damage from a cancer diagnosis.

Dude, there is no good cancer.

No Evidence Of Disease

No Evidence Of Disease is the accurate term to describe, in my opinion, what you are when you have no evidence of disease. It's that simple.


There are people who like to call themselves thrivers. Sadly, while I aspire to thriving status — and while I have times when I am thriving — as far as my experience is concerned, that term in no way does justice to the aftermath of cancer. 

I am still fighting (yes, I AM most definitely fighting, battling, brawling) my way back from three cancers. 

For just one aspect of the reams of long-term side effects of "surviving" a cancer diagnosis, see Liz's and Diane Mapes's work on #FinancialToxicity.

Egregious and Damaging: "Lost The Battle With Cancer"

Lastly, "lost the battle with cancer" is an egregious, inaccurate and, damaging term that must never be used to refer to what happens when a person dies because treatments failed them. The correct term must be a version of reality: treatments did not work, treatments failed the person, science was not advanced enough to stop the cancer from killing the person, medicine lost the battle.


Late breaking additions to this post:

  • Here is the link to Liz Szabo's discussion group.
  • Here is an article ("How Should We Talk About Cancer?") by Dr. Darren Saunders, who tweeted me the link.
  • And now this — today brought news that Olivia Newton John who was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer in 1992 has found that that cancer has metastasized.


  1. Powerful article that resonates greatly with me. I'm a three-time cancer 'overcomer' whose been living with metastatic breast cancer for almost 8 years. I too don't use the war metaphor; I'm on a long, winding journey with various pit stops, valleys, mountains, and more. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Excellent review of this subject...

  3. Love this Liza and it resonates with me too. 💜😇