Cancer does not magically make people nicer or smarter (either the people who have it or the people who don’t, at least not yet). If it did, then perhaps having cancer would acquire its own special cachet, and people wouldn’t be as confounded as they tend to be when attempting to respond appropriately.
We could all probably contribute with glee to a session of “the worst thing to tell someone with cancer.” I remember a pretty good overview in the NYTimes a few months ago; does that ring a bell with anyone else? That’s a topic up for grabs here if anyone wants it; just let me know. Tonight, though, I’m interested in addressing another variant on the awkwardness that seems to be associated with discussions of cancer, namely the clichés about cancer that have become part of conventional discourse. I’ll present three of my least favorite before opening the floor to you.
Before I start, however, let me note for the record that I have probably used each one of these phrases more than once myself, and that while I groan internally when I hear them, I also recognize that they have some merit for the speaker, at least. And I also want to acknowledge that this is quite a personal matter; I might be completely out of line compared with the consensus that emerges among everyone else who comments this evening. Nevertheless, I hope that we can move beyond the superficial level of communication where each of these phrases seems to keep us stuck; maybe this conversation is a start.
Only one of the three about which I’m complaining tonight is used exclusively in relation to cancer. That’s the phrase “cancer journey.” Ooof! I almost lack the words to explain why I dislike this so intensely. I suppose in part it’s now because I associate it with a book I intensely disliked (which I’m not even going to name, though it had both of those words in its title). But it’s also because I love to travel, very much, and I adore adventures, local or distant, and I vehemently dislike the creation of an association between taking a trip and having cancer. It’s quite possible that one won’t inhabit the world in the same way post-cancer, but I just don’t like having the word “journey” as the label for this transformation. Besides, a “journey” originally had an association with a trip of one day’s length (per the French word “jour,” meaning “day”—and by the way, does anyone else remember a wonderful digest of words for children called the Abecedarian Book? I was such a geek as a kid, that book was one of my favorites for years) and by no means is dealing with cancer something that is accomplished in a day!
Ultimately, I think the phrase trivializes the experience of coping with cancer—domesticates, sanitizes, bowdlerizes it. It’s a messy experience, full of bodily fluids and bodily failures, and it’s not comparable to a quick pleasure trip. YMMV of course, but this one is at the top of the list of my least-favorite cancer clichés.
The other two have at least as much use in non-cancer circles as they do applied to cancer, but they are extremely hard to address when they make their appearance in cancer-related dialogue. The first one in this category is “It is what it is.” (That’s just what I want in trying to come to terms with cancer, a tautology.) Now, I know that the motivation behind this one can be construed in a positive fashion, since it encourages people to try to be direct and matter-of-fact about what “is” at any given moment, instead of being either overly dramatic or understated about it. Sometimes that’s an accomplishment. But too often it conveys to me a sense of fatalism. I also see the distinct possibility that what “is” a matter of fact to one person is clearly a matter of judgment to another, and thus far more open to dispute.
The second one, which I expect will resonate with many of you in the way it does with me, is “If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger.” I was reminded of this particular cliché by MichiganChet’s diary a few days ago, in which he indicated his own disdain for the sentiment. Actually, surviving cancer provides many, many examples to the contrary. The usual treatments for cancer—cut, poison, or burn—are not known for producing outcomes that make one physically stronger or more resilient. On the contrary, one of the major complaints about standard cancer treatments now is that frequently (to use another cliché) the “cure is worse than the disease.” That might not literally be so, if one can reasonably claim that the treatments are responsible for saving one’s life. But the cure generally doesn’t improve one’s quality of life. Cancer survivors post-diagnosis and post-treatment (if that has been invasive and rigorous) are not generally healthier in all senses than they were pre-diagnosis.
But wait, I hear some of you saying, “health” is itself a relative term, and for that matter so is “strength.” The strength you might want to reference is actually a metaphysical (emotional, spiritual, mental) characteristic, not a strictly physical one. That’s fine, I’d reply, as long as you make the terms of your argument clear; in relying on the facile phrase you don’t help your cause. Instead, you're closing off the possibility of making connection through (or despite) grappling with what this condition implies.
Obviously, we could enter some pretty deep philosophical waters here in reflecting on the gains, if any, one can and should appreciate after having to cope with cancer. I guess that’s my overall point—to encourage the use of language in support of such exploration rather than as a mechanism to shut down inquiry. In the spirit of inquiry, then, I open the floor to your comments. Feel free to push back against my pet peeves, or to suggest your own for discussion. I look forward to your observations no matter what.