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What Does Beating Cancer Mean Anyway?

So, what exactly does beating cancer mean anyway?

Of course, words are far from perfect, no matter what you’re talking about. I get that. We gravitate toward the familiar when searching for words in Cancer Land, too. We grab words we hear most often and spew them out often without giving them a whole lot of thought.

After all, saying something is better than saying nothing, right?

Totally. Almost always.

But this doesn’t mean we all get a free pass to say whatever we want whenever we want.

One phrase that has mystified me since the day I landed in Cancer Land goes something like this:  I just know you will beat this (cancer).

The thing is, I’ve never been able to figure out how a person goes about beating cancer or what it even means.

Have I beaten it?

Have you?

I mean, it’s been eight years since my diagnosis. So maybe I have. But maybe not.

Some days, it sure as heck doesn’t feel like I’ve beaten anything.

What in the world does “beating cancer” even mean anyway?

Do you beat cancer if you show up for appointments and follow your treatment plan?

Do you beat cancer if you keep a stiff upper lip at all times?

Do you beat cancer if you don’t complain too much about the brutal side effects you experience — even eight years out?

Do you beat cancer if you pretend you are brave?

Do you beat cancer if you or others decide you’ve morphed into a new and improved version of your former self?

Do you beat cancer if you miraculously figure out what’s important in life?

Do you beat cancer if you accomplish stuff on your bucket list? (I don’t have one, btw. Do you?)

Do you beat cancer if you learn shit or reorganize priorities?

Do you beat cancer as long as you keep breathing?

I do not know.

Seriously, I do not know what beating cancer means.

As long as you’re not dead, are you beating cancer?

But what about all those dear ones who have died?

And can you imagine how it must feel to our metastatic friends when someone says, you can beat this?

(Yes, they hear this too)

This beating cancer concept is just one example of how the entire battle talk narrative we’ve managed to create regarding cancer is so bothersome to some, including me. It boxes cancer people into a corner.

And I still say when someone dies from cancer, stating she/he lost her/his battle with cancer is insulting.

Staying feisty and positive will not determine cancer outcome. A positive attitude is not a one-way ticket out of Cancer Land. Of this I am quite certain. Dying is not losing to cancer; it is not giving up or a failure to beat it.

The other day, I saw one of those supposed-to-be-inspirational message images floating around on social media again. I’m pretty sure you’ve seen it, too, or something similar.

The author is unknown, so there’s no one to offend. I hope.

What Cancer Cannot Do 
Author Unknown Cancer is so limited….
It cannot cripple love.
It cannot shatter hope.
It cannot corrode faith.
It cannot eat away peace.
It cannot destroy confidence.
It cannot kill friendship.
It cannot shut out memories.
It cannot silence courage.
It cannot reduce eternal life.
It cannot quench the Spirit.

I remember someone sent this to my family when my mother was dying from metastatic breast cancer. It sort of irked me at the time, and I couldn’t figure out exactly why. Now I realize it felt dismissive. My family and I were staring cancer squarely in the face, and we were well aware of what cancer could steal, and it was a lot.

In a perfect world, perhaps all those above things would be true.

But Cancer World is anything but perfect. Sometimes cancer does do some of those things. Maybe even all of them. (Don’t believe me? Ask someone with a terminal diagnosis.)

And if it does any or all, does that mean you are failing to beat cancer?

Struggling to live up to some gold standard of what beating cancer means, adds to the already exhausting burden. We need to stop patronizing and judging cancer patients based on misguided battle talk analogies.

Cancer isn’t an opponent in some war game you can stomp out by mindset or determination.

Just this week, I was called cynical because I mentioned in a comment that Olympic gold medal winner Kikkan Randall’s cancer outcome would not be determined by positivity, tenacity or all the exercise in the world. These things are coping tools, they are not cancer-outcome determiners.

My issue wasn’t with her. Of course, I respect how she chooses to handle her experience. My issue was/is with the battle narrative that society just can’t seem to stop pushing.

If that makes me cynical, so be it. I’ve been called worse.

You cannot beat cancer with sheer will alone. You just cannot.

If battle talk works for some, that’s fine.

But if it doesn’t work for all of us, shouldn’t that be fine as well?

You don’t have to look at cancer as a battle with winners and losers or proclaim to be a warrior unless, of course, you want to.

As I’ve said over and over and will likely say again. And again. Be real. Be you. It’s enough.

What does beating cancer mean anyway?

I’m still not sure what beating cancer even means, but perhaps it’s as simple as that. Or maybe it should be. 

What do you think?

Has anyone ever said to you, you can beat this (cancer)?

How does/did hearing it make you feel?

What does beating cancer mean to you?

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What Does Beating #Cancer Mean Anyway? #breastcancer


Thursday 18th of February 2021

Nancy, thanks for reposting this. My initial diagnosis was in 2012. I hated all the pink crap, the pep talks, etc. as I dealt with debilitating chemotherapy, recovery from surgery, CIPN, and the next 5 years of medication. Now, another 2 years later, it's been extremely disheartening to receive a mets diagnosis. You are so right about the "cure" BS and what little people understand about stage 4 metastatic diagnoses. But, hey, we deal with whatever comes as best we can each day.


Friday 19th of February 2021

Cathey, I'm sorry to hear about your mets diagnosis. That sucks and yeah, there's a lot of BS out there. As you said, we deal with whatever comes as best we can, and you'll keep doing that. I certainly wish you all the best. Thank you for taking time to comment.

Carol Radsprecher

Wednesday 17th of February 2021

Thank you! I agree with everything you wrote.

What also irks me is people announcing they’ve beaten cancer, right after they’ve finished their treatments. One bad thing about cancer is that it can lie dormant for even years and then reappear as a metastasis. As you mentioned, no one can know for sure if one’s cancer will never return. People want to feel in control. We are in control, but only to a certain extent.


Friday 19th of February 2021

Carol, You are so right. Thanks for chiming in.


Tuesday 28th of January 2020

Yes I think it is time to change language; some of us are uncomfortable with the battle metaphors:


Monday 27th of January 2020

Hi Nancy,

I really like this blog post and think you make some fantastic and v important points. Would you mind if I quoted a little bit of it (with credit to you) in a post I'm writing for Breast Cancer Now? I am also writing about how the language around breast cancer needs to change, and arguing that 'fighting talk' doesn't do any good. Let me know if that's ok with you!


Monday 27th of January 2020

Em, I'm glad this post resonates. I don't mind a bit if you quote me, with credit given. I will look forward to reading and sharing your piece. Thank you so much.


Friday 24th of January 2020

Nancy. I have been reading your blog for awhile now. Thank you for all your insight and wisdom about this horrible disease. I was diagnosed 7-18. I was very ignorant at that time and was under the false impression that breast cancer was just a bump in the road. I was mislead by all the pink shit and warrior shit and you got this shit. Boy, did I learn fast. I was not strong and brave and I kept telling people that, yet they would say oh yes you are! I did the chemo, BMX and radiation because I knew that it would be my best chance to destroy the evil in my body. But I also knew that there is no guarantee that it would be gone and there is a possibility of recurrence. I am still suffering from fatigue and neuropathy. I have less tolerance and patience. I especially don’t like the warrior crap. And I really hate the phrase “new normal”. I morn the old me. I am sad that my life has changed but I am grateful to be alive. One day at a time is all I can do right now.


Friday 24th of January 2020

Lisa, Yes, it's a lot to grapple with. I'm sorry about your diagnosis and that you now are dealing with fatigue and neuropathy. It's normal to mourn the old you. Sometimes we don't allow ourselves to grieve for all the things cancer steals. Doing so does not mean you aren't grateful. You might want to read this post: One day at a time is all any of us can do. My best to you and thank you for sharing.

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