Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The battle against cancer and why war metaphors are a bad idea.

I beat cancer. Or perhaps I should say I am beating cancer. But some people don’t. Did they not fight hard enough? Were their tactics wrong? Was their ‘strength of character’ not strong enough? Was it their fault that they died?

Of course not. So why are we assigning so much violence and guilt to a concept already so devastating? This is victim blaming at its rawest and most sinister. 

It is nobody’s fault when someone dies of cancer. But if we discuss cancer in these war-like terms, of battles and fights, of winners and losers, of defeaters and defeated, then invariably we are assigning these binary notions on an undeserving population. If some people beat cancer, then it stands to reason that some people lose to cancer. And people are not afraid of saying that either. She lost her battle with cancer. She lost the fight. She’s a loser. And what about those with terminal diseases? No matter how much they fight, it will be futile in the end and no amount of rallying the troops is going to change that. Surely that is damaging to a person’s already fragile psyche?

Some people’s bodies respond to cancer treatments and make a full recovery. Some people’s bodies do not respond to treatment and the disease overwhelms them and they die. It is as simple as that. It has nothing to do with moral fibre, strength of character or a positive mental attitude. No one is to blame but the cancer. I feel very passionately about this. I feel uncomfortable when anyone tells me that it is something in my ‘character’ which has enabled me to get better. No. It was a team of highly skilled doctors, some hefty doses of chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant from a benevolent sister. 

And yet it is so prevalent and so persistent. Fight cancer. Let’s beat cancer. If you beat cancer, you are a cancer SURVIVOR. You were brave… These concepts are not only shouted at us from advertising campaigns, charities, well-meaning celebrity spokespeople, but family members, friends, acquaintances, even nurses and doctors. It’s impossible to avoid. 

The irony is that cancer is from within. Cancer is our own cells that have got out of control. It’s not some external army - if it is a war (it isn’t) it is a war with oneself.

I began having these thoughts right from the outset of my diagnosis. As a healthy person, I had never thought about the problems with our linguistic understanding of cancer. In fact, there are a lot of things that it is difficult to appreciate until you’re on the other side of it (wait for my rant on the Teenage Cancer Trust). But I felt like that in telling me to fight my disease, people were also telling me that I had to be stoic. Some days, I just wanted to be a mess of tears and self-pity. And there were indeed many days and nights spent that way. A lot of the time I was, and still am, bloody miserable that my life has had to be put on hold, that I almost died, that I am infertile, that I look like a freakin’ hamster. But what would people say if I just moped around? What would my obituary say?

“Last night, Grace Ward lost her battle with cancer. She didn’t really put up much of a fight. In fact, she kind of deserved what she got. She never saw that silver lining and she certainly didn’t look on the bright side. In fact, everyone was surprised she didn’t give up sooner. What a loser.” 

Of course not. Even if I did mope about all day, everyone would forget that and convince themselves and each other that I fought the hard fight. That’s the funny thing. It’s actually completely beyond a patient’s control. Whether you are perceived to be strong and composed, or whether people see your obvious struggle, they will still say that you were brave and that you fought hard. Like everything else, it’s beyond your control. As I said, these ideas struck me almost straight away and I felt alone in my thoughts (and also somewhat like an ungrateful cow). But during my third round of chemotherapy I read “C: Because Cowards Get Cancer Too” by John Diamond and in it there was a whole chapter on exactly these thoughts. It was one of those rare moments in literature, articulated perfectly by Alan Bennett by way of Hector in The History Boys when “you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours”.

And yet, a quick google of John Diamond reveals an obituary from the Daily Mail entitled “Diamond loses battle against cancer”. It’s infuriating! An obituary written by someone who hadn’t even bothered to read his book. 

The Guardian did him proud by commencing his obituary with these ironic lines: “The journalist, writer and broadcaster John Diamond, who has died aged 47, did not battle his illness bravely. Nor was he courageous in the face of death. He developed cancer and, despite treatment, it killed him”.

So if this thing ever comes back and my treatment doesn’t work, I plead to you through cyberspace… don’t think I fought in any other way than that which came naturally to me. I did not step up my game. I just did what I felt like on a day to day basis, and some of those days were easier and better than others. And some of those days I felt thoroughly fed up with the whole thing and I am not ashamed of that in the slightest.

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