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What Does Beating Cancer Mean Anyway?

Cancer language is problematic and much of it is in dire need of an overhaul, at least in my opinion. 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 first 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’s like boxing 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 is fine with me.

But if it doesn’t work for all of us, why can’t the battle-talk people accept that?

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

42 thoughts to “What Does Beating Cancer Mean Anyway?”

  1. Wow! Kill friendship. (I guess you could say not real friendship) and even family relations – who disappear. Yeah that list of pink positivity is rather offensive. Thanks for posting and sharing your thoughts as usual. I’ll write more if I have the chance. And yes Stating someone ‘Lost a battle” is just ridiculous too

  2. Lol

    Almost three years ago now. I woke up from lumpectomy . My surgeon says
    Congradulations. You beat cancer ?
    I looked at him confused and said nothing as he waited for a reply from my stone face .

    1. Carol, It’s really problematic when those in the medical field say that sort of thing. Of course, your surgeon was trying to be optimistic and all that, but jeez. Beating cancer isn’t quite that simple. Thank you for sharing that.

  3. I suppose one could say “I beat cancer” if in remission and free of fear of recurrence, healthy and strong…?
    But I am with you Nancy, I don’t like the battle talk either and my cancer is chronic so no “beating” in sight. I find it challenging when people tell me that You can beat it, You are a strong person. Be positive as mindset helps the battle. While I know it is well intended and also may speak from the fears of that person It feels like a lot of pressure on me. fear of letting people down in those moments where I am not strong and have doubts. When depression sneaks in. It makes me not want to reach out to the battle people as I need people who can lift me up, hold me not lecture me. Cancer can kill friendships, at least in my case.

    Thanks Nancy I do enjoy your blog!

    1. Eli, I’ve come to the conclusion that good intentions aren’t enough. Of course, it depends on the person saying things, your relationship, the situation and more. But giving all people a free pass all the time isn’t the answer either, IMO. I’m sorry you deal with depression. It’s understandable you don’t want to reach out to the battle-talk people when that happens. Which is exactly the point – such expectations, talk or whatever increase the burden for some cancer patients. Like you said, it adds a lot of pressure. Thank you for sharing and thank you for your kind words about my blog.

  4. I seriously love all your posts! It’s as though you write the words I have a difficult time articulating!! I hate when people ask me or say to me, “So you beat it?” Like everything is wonderful now and I never have to give it another thought!! Eight years out and one word can send me reeling back to my “not so good place.” Yesterday, my sis in law who was originally diagnosed 2 months before me…was re diagnosed with breast cancer again. I am so sad for her and at the same time completely stressed out for myself!! The anxiety never seems to go away?!
    We must have been diagnosed very near to the same time. For me it was May 4th 2010. I started my chemo on July 1st…so like one of your last articles, July is always a weird month for me. PTSD…is real! 😉

    1. Tracey, Thank you so much for saying you love my posts. I know what you mean when you say you hate it when people say things like, you beat it…I am sorry to hear about your sister-in-law’s diagnosis. Looks like we were diagnosed very close to the same time. My diagnosis came on April 29th, 2010. I started chemo on July 13th. It wasn’t a Friday though! So yeah, July…lots of memories. Thank you for reading and sharing and thanks again for your kind words.

      1. Hi Nancy, this is a wonderful post. As a young person living with metastatic breast cancer, I find it incredibly insulting when people ask if I “beat it”, or tell me I’m young (and therefore healthy?), brave and strong and can beat it, etc. It’s isolating. I don’t feel “brave” or “strong”, I feel vulnerable and terrified much of the time. I worry that I won’t make it to my 30th birthday (July 13, your chemo start date!) And I’ve been living with metastatic disease for 2 years, which is the lower end of average life expectancy with this horrifying illness. I constantly panic, “is this the beginning of the end for me? Is this the start of my decline?”. The battle language puts pressure on the person to act tough at all times, which is unrealistic and further, an unhealthy expectation when a person is staring death in the face.

        I get frustrated when I see posts from early stagers about “beating it”, or “kicking cancers ass” on social media. It almost feels shaming to me. Like seeing someone post about how often they run or what healthy foods they eat…. and that’s how they “beat it”… while healthy lifestyle is important to overall well-being, if “beating cancer” were that simple, we wouldn’t be losing 114 women (and men) a day to MBC. I do all of those things, and I still have metastatic disease. I went on a raw vegan diet, ran 5 miles a day, and still my cancer spread. I do not believe there is a green juice regimen out there that will cure me, nutritious and delicious as green juices are…

        Thank you for writing this articulate post. And for advocating for those of us dealing with MBC. You are a healer through your powerful words of support and validation.

        1. One more thing: Considering that 1/3 of all women diagnosed with early stage breast cancer develop metastatic disease months or years out from initial diagnosis, I don’t know that we can truly say breast cancer is “beatable”. Until we have a cure for metastatic disease, we do not have a cure for any stage IMO. In that sense, I don’t know that anyone beats it…. MBC can happen to anyone.

        2. Amy, Your words say everything far more succinctly than mine. Your comments remind me of when I finished chemo and got a certificate and a bottle of sparkling cider. I thought, why? I don’t deserve this. And I hated hearing that I did. Or that I was brave, courageous or whatever. Some patients ring a bell. That sort of thing made me uncomfortable then and does now for exactly the reasons you mentioned. I do know many early stagers who do not like a lot of the cancer language either, though of course, many do. I understand how some words might feel like shaming, even though nobody intends that. Still, people need to think beyond their own situations sometimes. I’m sorry you are dealing with so much and it saddens me to think society adds “junk” you shouldn’t have to worry about. Thank you for sharing and thank you for your kind words too. They mean so much.

  5. Nancy that was just the most fantastic read. You are one terrific writer. I have often asked myself the same question, what does it mean to beat cancer and I don’t believe there is any such thing. Keep up your great work Nancy.

    1. Sally, Thank you so much. You’re very kind. I’ve always been flabbergasted by the phrase. I don’t believe there is any such thing either. And yet, we still here the words said over and over. Thanks for reading and taking time to comment.

  6. There’s clearly no such thing as “beating cancer”. It’s all a matter of luck…bad luck that you got it in the first place, and with good luck you may get rid of it and with better luck, you many never get it again. Having surgery, radiation and chemo, doesn’t mean you are fighting a battle. You are just following your Dr’s orders and hoping you’ve done your part in ridding yourself of cancer. And if you don’t make it. or if you have a recurrence, that doesn’t mean you’ve lost the “battle”. The whole phrase is annoying. I am not a hero if I survive any more than I am a loser if I don’t. I am just doing the best I can with the medical help that is recommended and available. The fear that cancer may return in one form or another never goes away entirely. Every time the next mammogram , blood test, or scan is due, the anxiety returns. Cancer changes you forever and it doesn’t matter what Stage you had or even how long ago you had the cancer. If I never have another diagnosis of cancer , it won’t be because I won the “battle”…rather that I have been lucky . I am currently 4 !/2 years out from surgery but will always be aware that I am never going to be the same woman I was before cancer intervened, I’m thankful for those years and hope for many more….not just for me, but for every woman who has to hear the diagnosis…”You have cancer.”, and then has to face the journey. We are a sisterhood. I can only pray that a cure will one day make that sisterhood a distant memory for all women.

    1. Alix, Well said. I’d add, it’s also a matter of having access to good medical care, and I am worried about the pre-existing conditions component now too. Among other things. As you might know, I believe healthcare is a human right, not a privilege for only those who can afford it. Thank you for sharing your valuable insights.

  7. Nancy –

    Wow! “Cancer cannot shatter hope”??? “It cannot eat away peace”??? What alternate universe is the author living in? Whether it’s one’s own cancer diagnosis or that of a family member, cancer sure as heck does shatter, destroy and upend. That entire piece of sentimental tripe makes me see red.

    As far as “beating cancer,” even if I didn’t object to the militaristic tone of such statements (and I do), talk about beating cancer simply displays either deep ignorance of the disease or dumbing it down in order to falsely reassure patients.

    I’m probably cancer free at this time but will never know that ‘I beat cancer.’ Even if there were some way to know for a fact that it would never return, the credit would go to modern medicine, along with a soupcon of luck and a nod to perseverance.

    Thanks for an insightful post today, Nancy. The upside to the nonsense is that it really got my heart rate up; maybe I won’t have to do as much cardio today 🙂

    PS – WHY is it that this pablum is always directed at cancer patients? Those with cardiac disease, or MS, or other threatening and chronic diseases aren’t constantly bombarded with these exhortations and expectations. This is the ONE time I’ll ask – why me??

  8. The battle comments don’t bother me. But seriously? Do we have a choice in any of it? If you want to call it a battle, go ahead. I’m just dealing with it. . .
    Love your blog. You energize me.

    1. Linda, I don’t have a problem if battle talk works for someone either. It’s just the constant societal over use of the war analogy talk in general that drives me a little crazy. Especially, when someone dies and it’s stated the person lost her battle to cancer. Argh! Thanks for your kind words about the blog. You and all my readers energize me. 🙂

  9. This definitely has me thinking. There were so many people that called me brave when I just thought I was doing what needed to be done to save my life. But I did know people who were afraid of chemo and I had a dear friend who was afraid of surgery and she died. I was heartbroken and couldn’t believe that in reality she was afraid of living, in my opinion.
    I do think people think I have beat cancer when in reality I have metastatic cancer and it’s just waiting around the corner and I just haven’t gotten to that corner yet. I once had someone ask me what I did to beat cancer because they had a relative who had cancer. I told them to do what the doctor said – which is honestly all I knew to do – but the reality is that some choose not to do that.
    Beating cancer to me means I no longer get scans and don’t have to see my oncologist and there’s only one path there ……

    1. Lisa, Well, thinking is good, right? Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I’m a bit confused though. You said you have mbc, but don’t have scans or see your oncologist anymore. I’m assuming you’ve made some personal decisions about how you’re dealing with things. My best to you with everything.

  10. To me beating cancer is focusing on living my life to the best of my ability and not letting cancer control my life. Yes, I take my medication, keep my follow up appts w/ my docs and don’t ignore that I was diagnosed w/ breast cancer. But my focus is living my life well—continuing to be the best wife/mom/grandmom/friend/employee that I can be, to reach out and help others as the opportunities present, to to enjoy life fully.

  11. Sometimes I wonder if “battle” talk makes the person saying it feel better and more comfortable about cancer and the situation with the person they know.

    For me personally I don’t hate it and I don’t love it. I feel like it’s placing blame somehow on me as if I wanted to be in this war, um no definitely NOT! But if it makes someone feel better I’m happy for them.

    1. Lindsay, I think what you said in your first sentence might be true. And as you alluded to, the blame game comes into play for sure. Thanks for sharing your opinion on this.

  12. Thank you for writing. The list is pretty silly. It really wouldn’t take much imagination and a little life experience to know that it certainly can do all the things listed – except the eternal life line – who knows with that one, and am I the only one who doesn’t find the idea of eternal life comforting?
    I sometimes feel like I am fighting though. I dread every check-up and mammogram. I have to write down what I want the doctor to know because if I don’t, I probably won’t tell him. If my cancer returns, it may be partly because I should have eaten more veggies, or exercised more, or not gained weight, or never had a glass of wine, or worried about many things, – I’ve already lost the fight on these issues, but I truly believe sticking my head in the sand and pretending I’m above normal human emotions is not helpful.

    1. MargM, Yeah, that list…I so agree with you about being true to your emotions. Cancer or no cancer, no one should be made to feel her/his emotions aren’t valid. Life isn’t just about staying positive all the time or even about always finding the silver linings. Allowing for genuineness is critical for anyone’s mental well-being. Thank you for adding to this discussion.

  13. my .02 on this “beating cancer” Uses that Rah-Rah sports comparison, as if it’s a game. It’s a convenient shortcut for those who don’t want to think very deeply about what other people may be experiencing when they are dealing with cancer and all that goes along with it. It’s an easy way to deny and dismiss a complex Experience that is part of so many peoples lives. It’s part of the deceptive language used around cancer that enables denial, gives false hope and perpetuates ignorance, and contributes to less than ideal support and care for those who have cancer. Drives me crazy. (Disclosure- I have never had cancer. I am an oncology nurse)

    1. Alene, You might be right about that easy short-cut idea. After all, we live in a society that loves short-cuts for a lot of things. And the rah-rah component of supposedly encouraging cancer talk is fine to a point, but then…Well, you know my feelings on this. Thank you for sharing yours. Always interested in your two cents!

  14. “you’ve got this!” (Yeah, I’ve got this: it’s called cancer…) feels like a variation on “You can beat this if…” you stay positive, eat the right foods, stay strong, don’t “let” cancer win, etc…
    Cancer does seem at times to feel like a kind of war: fighting against a direct assault on your body or wondering where the enemy is hiding, preparing for the next stealth attack.

    1. Triple Positive, Oh yeah, you’ve got this, that’s another variation for sure. I think there’s a big difference between how a person chooses to look at her cancer experience and how society suggests she should. That’s what your comment says to me. I don’t understand why that’s so hard for some to understand. Thank you for taking time to comment. I appreciate you sharing your perspectives on this.

  15. First, I’m an eight year survivor also. THANK YOU for reminding people that side effects impact patients who are eight years out. Someone at my old job mocked me because I would randomly leave my drink or my pad somewhere.I could remember my duties, but left my pads everywhere. I would smile through gritted teeth at his mocking and think to myself, is that any way to talk to someone who has been poisoned? I think the battle ideology is a personal coping tool for some. I also think it should remain personal. Cancer patients don’t choose to go to battle and telling a metastatic patient they will beat cancer is insensitive, uneducated, and hurtful. The patient, like me with my coworker, may smile. But inwardly, they are instantly reminded of the fact that they are terminal. It’s so much better to LISTEN to a patient and empathize rather than trivialize. One of my dearest friends has metastatic breast cancer. I listen to her, I let her cry, I tell her I’ll be there for her no matter what. But I don’t Pat her on the head and say they’ll find a cure because that makes her nightmare easier FOR ME to cope with. Thank you for this insightful piece.

  16. My father used to say he would beat his cancer. He died a mere three months later but I guess it helped him and my mom to believe it.

    About that poem, it’s trash worthy. Ick! And I also don’t have a bucket list.

    1. Eileen, Oh, that’s so sad. It probably did help your parents. Or maybe he thought by saying such things it helped you and your siblings (If you have any. Not sure, after all this time knowing you). And yeah, that poem. It gets floated around frequently, and it makes me cringe whenever I see it. And well, well. No bucket list for you either! Reading that makes me smile. One more thing we have in common I guess. Thank you for sharing.

  17. I think what Lindsey said above is so true! People don’t know what to say to you about your cancer so they say, ” you can beat this” to make themselves feel better! They think they have said something positive that will make you feel better and give you hope. I never felt I had beat my breast cancer, I felt it was gone at least for a while as far as tests and scans showed, and I was being a good girl and taking my Anastrazol. Recently it reared it’s ugly head again as metastatic breast cancer, and I start Ibrance and a shot on Monday. I had an aunt who had bc in her 50s and she lived to be 92, so maybe she did “beat it”!

    1. Barb, I’m sorry you are now metastatic and facing ongoing treatment for mbc. I hope treatment goes as smoothly as possible for you, is effective and that the side effects aren’t too harsh. I think you’re right that people often don’t know what to say, but still…Maybe I need to write a post on things to say that might help. And as for you aunt’s case, it just shows the randomness of it all, doesn’t it? Thank you for adding your thoughts and again, good luck with everything.

  18. Ignorance is the first big barrier to the truth and, believe it or not, I think if you asked the average person on the street, they would tell you that chemo is a cure for cancer. I’ve even spoken to cancer patients going through chemo who believe this. We in this forum know that’s not true because we’ve been through the process, read reams of articles, and asked question after question of our doctors and nurses. We belong to forums, blogs, and cancer sites where we can share and learn from the experiences of others. With all the time and effort we put into informing ourselves about cancer, is it any wonder that the average person doesn’t have a clue. I also think that many people are whistling in the dark. They don’t want to believe that cancer can’t be beaten because what if it happens to them? It annoys the heck out of me when I hear the phrase, “you can beat this”, but I try to keep all these things in mind when I answer.

    1. Lennox, I like to believe the average person is at least semi-informed about cancer and understands the fact that there’s no “cure”. After all, almost everyone is impacted by cancer be it a family member, co-worker or friend. So most people have some kind of general knowledge. Although, we do hear over and over how so and so beat her cancer and is now cancer-free. Such things are often stated with certainty, which is problematic. Sometimes we even hear the medical community talk that way. So, you might be right. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. Always appreciate your insights.

  19. Hi Nancy,

    Saying one has beaten cancer doesn’t make sense to me. Cancer has beaten me up pretty badly, as it does to people. Beating cancer is a delusion. No one beats it, even if those who’ve had it eventually die of something else. There’s always going to be collateral damage. Then, again, some people like to delude themselves. I guess if it helps their emotional state, then I guess it’s OK for them. It’s not OK for me, though. I am 17 years out and I have not beaten cancer. It could come back. And even if it never does, I did not beat cancer.

  20. The “battle” is never over.
    I still fight anxiety, anger & grief.
    That poem pisses me off.
    Only 1 item on my bucket list…
    to cry tears of joy once again.

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