We're all familiar with sentences like this one: Mr. Smith died yesterday after a long battle with cancer. We think we know what it means, but we read it and hear it so often that it carries little weight, bears no meaning. It's one of the clichés of cancer.
It is easy shorthand. But it says more about the writer or speaker than it does about the deceased. We like to say that people "fight" cancer because we wrestle fearfully with the notion of ever having the disease. We have turned cancer into one of our modern devils.
But after staggering through prostate cancer and its treatment — surgery, radiation and hormone therapy — the words "fight" and "battle" make me cringe and bristle.
I sometimes think of cancer as a long and difficult journey, a quest out of Tolkien, or a dark waltz — but never a battle. How can it be a battle when we patients are the actual battleground? We are caught in the middle, between our doctors and their potential tools of healing and the cell-devouring horde.
We become a wasteland, at once infested by the black dust of cancer and damaged by the "friendly fire" of treatment. And ordinary language falls far short of explaining that keen sense of oblivion.
As a patient, it's hard to articulate how being seriously ill feels. In a profound way, we are boiled down to our essential animal selves. We crave survival. We long for pain to end, for ice chips on parched lips, for the brush of a soft hand.
It pays to have a positive outlook, I think, but that in no way translates to "fighting" cancer. Cancer simply is. You can deny its presence in your body, cower at the thought or boldly state that you're going to whup it. But the cancer does not care. You're here, the cancer has arrived, and the disease is going to feed until your doctors destroy it or, at least, discourage it.
Then there's the matter of bravery. We call cancer patients "brave," perhaps, because the very word cancer makes most of us tremble in fear. But there is nothing brave about showing up for surgery or radiation sessions. Is a tree brave for still standing after its leaves shrivel and fall? Bravery entails choice, and most patients have very little choice but to undergo treatment.
Which brings me to "victim." I didn't feel like a victim when I learned that I had cancer. Sure, I felt unlucky and sad and angry, but not like a victim. And I have no patience for the modern cult of victimology.
Victim implies an assailant, and there is no malice or intent with cancer. Some cells in my body mutinied, and I became a host organism — all of it completely organic and natural.
And what are we once treatment ends? Are we survivors? I don't feel much like a survivor in the traditional (or even reality TV) sense. I didn't crawl from a burning building or come home whole from a tour of duty in Afghanistan.
I'm just trying to lead a positive postcancer life, grateful that my surging Stage 3 cancer has been turned aside, pleased that I can realistically think about the future. I'm trying to complete the metamorphosis from brittle husk to being just me again.
The phrase "salvage radiation" is not used much anymore, but when one doctor said it in reference to my treatment, it made me feel less human and more like a "case." It meant I needed radiation after surgery, because the cancer was more aggressive than expected — I needed to be "salvaged."
I felt as if I had been plopped into some screwy sequel to "Raise the Titanic!" — time to raise the U.S.S. Jennings, lads. Or maybe I was going to get picked up by a scrap-metal truck and then get zapped at Frank's Junkyard, laid out in the back seat of a 1960 Ford Fairlane.
And I'm still troubled by this sentence, which I've heard many times: "Well, at least it's a good cancer." It's usually applied to cancers that are considered highly treatable, like those of the prostate and thyroid.
Most people mean well, but the idea of a good cancer makes no sense. At best, the words break meaninglessly over the patient. There are no good cancers, just as there are no good wars, no good earthquakes.
Words can just be inadequate. And as we stumble and trip toward trying to say the right and true thing, we often reach for the nearest rotted-out cliché for support. Better to say nothing, and offer the gift of your presence, than to utter bankrupt bromides.
Silences make us squirm. But when I was sickest, most numbed by my treatment, it was more than healing to bask in a friend's compassionate silence, to receive and give a hug, to be sustained by a genuine smile.
Strangely enough, although cancer threatened my life it also exalted it, brought with it a bright and terrible clarity.