Dear Fellow Traveler,
It seems like I’m always seeing and hearing people describe cancer patients as being in a fight with cancer. The word “fight” makes sense in many ways, but at the same time it makes me cringe a little because the word can mean many different things depending on one’s cancer status and where a survivor is in their healing journey.
Dealing with cancer might be the major fight of and for our lives using a heavy arsenal of artillery like chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. However, using the word “fight” suggests that cancer and we are equal partners and that we have a fair chance to win. With our current medical knowledge, we do not always have that chance. Thinking of cancer as a fight may make cancer patients feel like they have failed their loved ones (who are often unrelenting cheerleaders!) and themselves when cancer starts to “win”. This may give a person in the final stages of their life a heavy burden to carry – shame, embarrassment, and guilt — as if they could and should have tried harder to fight it. It is important to remember that the fight with cancer is not fair. The knowledge and therapies available to us in the 21st century do not yet guarantee that we can outsmart cancer. And yes, lifestyle may play a role too – but we have to note that there are so many other, often unknown, factors in our body, the black box, that affect cancer outcomes.
Cancer is our enemy, since it can literally attack and break our bodies down resulting in suffering and death. The emotional rollercoaster it sets us on may result in anger, sadness, and frustration. But over time, perhaps with help from others (including professionals) we may be able to see the silver lining of a cancer diagnosis. It confronts us with the fragility of life and teaches us empathy, humility, and the value of time and love (which can, at times, seem rather abstract). In the end, we all try to make sense of our lives, the good and the bad, by telling our life stories in a way that makes sense to us, comforts us and allows us to be at peace.
Cancer therapies can result in battle scars. Emotional scars, in the most extreme form, can be similar to the PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) that soldiers have when they return from war. Physical scars — from surgery, radiation, procedures, port placements, etc. — serve as a constant reminder of your illness when you look in the mirror or when other people ask about them. That may be more than you or your loved ones can handle. Healing may require a little bit of work to allow you to accept that cancer is a part of your life story and new identity, but nothing more than that. Even though cancer can be all-consuming, you are defined by more than your disease. Recognizing this may allow you to remain graceful, resilient and adaptive when others comment on your scars. You may openly explain to them that you are not ready to delve into that topic yet or are not ready to deal with their emotions. Alternatively, you may have a ready-to-go, light reply that strikes a balance between humor and respect (“Oh! Those are my battle scars!”) that allows you to kindly dismiss and change the topic. Most people will get the hint.
When a person deals with cancer, depending on where they are in their healing journey, describing them as fighting cancer can be a seemingly innocent, yet charged label, that may give them the feeling of being a loser or a failure. Remember, the fight isn’t always fair. I believe every person is brave and deserves a Medal of Honor!
Thank you for visiting me. Below I’ve included a few things to educate and entertain you. Remember, I share ‘extra treats’ if you follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Pinterest! Plus, you can get notified of a new posting by subscribing to our newsletter!
Learn and Think:
Live and Feel:
- Time is a fascinating concept — even though it always marches on at the same speed, it can feel as if it sometimes goes very fast or slow. They say that time flies when you’re having fun, but one of my patients once told me that it also goes fast when you’re not having fun. The Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, has a phenomenal piece of art that displays a 12-hour long video of a person drawing and erasing the clock’s hands each minute in “real time”.
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