A couple weeks ago when we all heard the news that Senator John McCain had been diagnosed with brain cancer, immediately the cancer battle talk swung into full gear. One of the first things we all heard TV reporters say was something along the lines of, John McCain is a real fighter, so we know he’s gonna fight this, too. If anyone can beat this, he can. Even former President Obama’s tweet to McCain intended to encourage, stirred controversy.
I knew I’d have to write about this. I also knew it would have to wait. Nothing was going to interfere with me writing about the first anniversary of my dad’s death. Nothing.
As it turns out, this delay was a good thing because now I can cover two McCain-driven topics in one post.
First, Senator McCain’s recent cancer diagnosis reignited the debate about the use/overuse of battle talk in Cancer Land. This debate matters.
McCain’s war record shows he is a fighter, but this attribute will not determine his cancer outcome down the road. It just won’t.
This is one reason why articles about cancer and the overuse and inappropriate use of war metaphors started popping up all over the place.
Clearly, the debate about using war metaphor language in Cancer Land was reignited. Again.
And this is a good thing. Debate is a good thing. Debate generates discussion. Discussion sometimes generates positive change.
As I’ve written before, maybe cancer language does need an overhaul. Perhaps we can consider avoiding some of the cancer language traps at least some of the time. At the very least when someone dies from cancer, we can ditch the lost her battle cliche, can we not?
When I mentioned my weariness with the battle talk (again) to dear hubby, he rolled his eyes and asked, “Is it really that wrong to encourage someone to fight her/his cancer?”
That was all I needed to say.
But again, is it so bad to tell a person diagnosed with cancer to fight?
Maybe. Maybe not. It depends on the person. Every person diagnosed with cancer is an individual with individual values, beliefs and needs. Each person gets to choose (or should get to) how to do her/his cancer.
Obviously, this sort of battle language works for some, so there’s that. But for many others, including me, not so much.
Why does it matter?
Because words matter. For too long, the culturally accepted response from many regarding how to encourage someone with a cancer diagnosis, even a terminal one, continues to be the avoidance of reality response. Too often it’s an automatic reach into the proverbial bag of platitudes and cliches response.
Stay positive. You can beat this. Just fight. Be a warrior. Be strong. Be brave. Be tough. Kick cancer’s ass and on and on…
Of course, no one wants to hear, oh you poor thing, how much time do you have? Or you might as well do what you want while you still can. Or oh my God, my grandmother had that and she died in less than six months.
No one has the right to strip someone else of hope.
But this isn’t about hope. It’s about thinking beyond cliches and trite responses. It’s also about reality.
Take a cue from the person who’s been diagnosed. When in doubt about what to say, listen first.
It might be more helpful to offer fewer cheerleader-type expressions and instead offer statements of compassion, concern and love. Unconditional love.
Speaking for myself, I would much prefer to hear something like – gosh, I’m sorry you’re going through this. I’ll be here for you, no matter what. I love you.
The whole point of supporting someone with a devastating diagnosis such as cancer is to lighten their burden, not add to it, isn’t it?
Suggesting a person can beat this if only she fights hard enough adds to the already cumbersome load of cancer, especially when the diagnosis is dire. Giving your dear one with cancer “permission” to feel pissed off, scared and anything but brave might be far more helpful.
Again, it’s about unconditional love. No strings attached. No expectations of bravery, courage or toughness required.
The cancer language debate will continue in Cancer Land. John McCain’s situation will likely reignite this debate again and again in the coming months.
Is he a fighter? Does he like being called one?
I have no idea, but it’s irrelevant anyway because again, this attribute will not determine his outcome.
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Now to that second topic – Thank you, Senator McCain, for rejecting the #SkinnyRepeal bill, the GOP’s latest effort to repeal the Affordable Health Care Act. You did the right thing. As did Senator Susan Collins and Senator Lisa Murkowski. Love this piece, “What McCain Did Was Hard. What Murkowski and Collins Did Was Harder.” I couldn’t agree more. Thank you to all the senators who voted no, including mine, Senator Tammy Baldwin. (Senator Ron Johnson’s office was probably getting pretty tired of me calling).
We wish John McCain the best. May he receive top-notch medical care. May his upcoming treatments not be too harsh and may they be effective.
I want the same quality care for every man, woman and child in the US, regardless of social or economic status. Yes, I want quality healthcare for all.
Isn’t this what we all should want?
Better coverage, better care for more Americans, indeed for all Americans?
Senator McCain, I have great respect for the service you have given to your country, both in the military and in government service. What a legacy indeed. Following your no vote, I respect you more. Of course, there is much work yet to be done.
I hope you and your colleagues on both sides of the aisle come together and work to fix the ACA. It’s the right thing to do. It’s also your job. Perhaps you will help lead this effort.
What a legacy that would be as well.
Do the war metaphors in Cancer Land work for you?
Do you like being told you’re a fighter?
Do you believe healthcare is a right or a privilege?
Sen. John McCain / Photo by Jim Greenhill, Flickr via wiki Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic