Cancer Isn’t a Battle

We hear it all the time: A person is “battling cancer.” Or perhaps “fighting the disease,” or being a “cancer warrior.”

I understand the intention behind these metaphors: They make us think of marshaling all of our strength, cleverness, and persistence to defeat a truly horrible enemy. Such language can make us feel powerful, perhaps motivating us to push through difficult treatments or endure a grueling surgery.

But patients aren’t soldiers, and cancer is unlike any enemy you’d encounter on a battlefield. It’s invisible. It’s wily. It evades logic. And if it’s a particularly nasty type, even the most advanced medicine and the brightest minds sometimes fail to eradicate it.

When I was in college, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Although a cocktail of medications contained her disease for years, by early 2004 it was everywhere: her liver, her lungs, her brain. I was living in Boston at the time. One weekend, I flew home to California for a visit. As I sat with my mother in the kitchen, I could hear that her breathing was labored. In the past several days, swallowing had become difficult. Her trademark warmth and goofy, playful demeanor were long gone; I did not recognize this strange woman who slumped in a wheelchair and barely looked me in the eyes.

I wanted to run away so that this image of her would not be seared into my memory. Instead, I sat and listened as she said something that surprised me. She told me that she still expected to get better. “And even if I don’t,” she added, “you know I tried my hardest.”

I’ve thought back to that conversation a lot — not only because it was the last time I saw my mother alive, but also because of what she said. To this day, I can’t forget the pressure she put on herself, as if dying from cancer would somehow be her fault, an indication that she hadn’t tried hard enough to stay alive for my father, brother, sister, and me.

We all like to think we have some control over our lives. Maybe that’s why “cancer battle” language is so widespread in popular culture. It’s more comforting to think of cancer patients as brave soldiers heading into battle, not simply as people for whom — through no fault of their own — a treatment may or may not work.

The randomness of cancer — who gets it, whether it’s amenable to treatment, who survives it — is its cruelest trait. Cancer doesn’t care if you’re young, have zero risk factors, or happen to be a kale-gobbling triathlete.

Years ago, when I worked for a hospital fundraising department, an oncologist came to give a guest lecture. He talked about screening tests and other commonsense measures to stay healthy: Don’t smoke. Don’t binge on alcohol. Get some exercise.

But his takeaway message was this: You can do everything right and still get cancer.

My mom was not a warrior, waging some mythical battle against a fearsome beast. She was a brilliant, loving, hilarious, wonderful person who also happened to be supremely unlucky. I wish I had understood then what I do now. If I could, I’d tell her that she didn’t need to convince me that she was trying hard enough to survive. That if things didn’t go her way, it was not her fault.

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