So a discussion about this came up in my Twitter feed recently. Some of my fellow-travellers in Cancerland don’t like the fighting metaphor. Fair enough. There’s nothing wrong with that––we all deal with our various things differently and a disease is no exception. My mother developed breast cancer at 90. She eventually had surgery but prior to that, her doctor treated it with hormones, which worked for a while. My mother referred to her tumour as ‘Madame’, talking about it––and sometimes to it––as if it were a fussy roommate. We learned from her doctor that it isn’t unusual for patients to name a tumour, or just the disease itself, and to treat it like a companion.
There’s nothing wrong with that. Whatever gets you through the night, the day, the following night, the day after, and so on and so forth. Your life, your rules. One size does not fit all.
So I’m a little put out by Macmillan Cancer Support telling people they shouldn’t think in terms of fighting. Or maybe what I take issue with is their narrow interpretation of ‘fight.’ There are all kinds of ways to fight, and many have nothing to do with combat or battlefields.
I get up every morning and bitch-slap Cancer right in the face. But a slap in the face doesn’t have to be literal. Getting excluded from my all-day dance parties is a slap in the face to Cancer. When I was having chemo, I pole-danced with my IV tree and put a funny hat on my medication infuser. That, to me, is fighting…and winning, at least for a time.
The thing is, I’ve been fighting all my life. I had to fight people’s expectations of what a kid from the bad part of town could become. I had to fight for my education. And even when I was a kid, I had to fight to stay alive. The heart defect I had wasn’t discovered until I was five––my mother’s sister Madeline had died of the same ailment. The doctor told my mother I should have been frail, sickly, and died early of a bad cold. I wasn’t, and I didn’t.
Fighting is what I know how to do. I fight and I go on, and I see nothing shameful about defeat. It doesn’t matter how strong you are or how lucky, no hot streak can last forever; the house always wins in the end. When losing is inevitable, there’s no shame in it.
Macmillan, honey, it’s not the fighting metaphor that makes patients feel guilty about admitting fear and preventing them from planning properly for their death––it’s the fact that they have frickin’ terminal cancer––literally, not metaphorically!
Everyone feels guilty about admitting they’re afraid of anything, regardless of what it is––it’s how we are. Nobody wants to be a fraidy-cat, even if they’re afraid of being terminal, which is about as terrifying as it gets. And planning for your own death–– bitch, please. ‘Hey, here’s a fun thing to do––let’s spend the weekend looking at urn catalogs and deciding on music for my service! Then we can have a will-making party!’ said nobody ever, not even healthy people.
No metaphor of any kind is going to make terminal cancer patients feel better, or braver, or more positive about what’s going to happen to them.
What will help a terminal cancer patient––or any other cancer patient––is the support of friends and family in whatever form the person needs. Macmillan Cancer Support is brilliant at that––you can call them up for any reason, even if you just need to talk. If you have money problems, they can work with you to find some way to manage. They have wigs and scarves and hats. There are support groups you can join, in person or online, or both.
Oh, what the hell, I already said it several paragraphs ago: your life, your rules. You don’t want to fight, do it your way. If it works for you, you’re not doing it wrong.
One last pro-tip: no one is positive about having terminal cancer all the time, not even me. But then, I’m not positive about anything all the time.