When I learned to read waaaay back in first grade during the Dick, Jane and Spot era, my class was neatly divided into three reading groups according to our ability, or that’s what the intention was anyway. Each group came up with some kind of cute name to call itself, like Squirrels, or Bluebirds or Bears.
It didn’t really matter what we called ourselves though because everyone knew what the names really meant. Everyone knew they really meant top, middle and bottom. We all knew exactly what was being done.
We were being labeled.
I always tried to avoid labeling children in my classroom because as they say, children often live up to those labels or worse yet, never escape from them once they’ve been branded with one. Once labeled a troublemaker, too often always labeled a troublemaker.
Maybe this labeling is okay if you are labeled as “gifted” or as a “high achiever” (I wouldn’t know I never had those labels), but if you are average or below, have a learning challenge of any kind or are one of “those troublemakers,” it’s not so great to be given a label you can never quite shake free of.
Fast forward into cancer life and I find myself inundated with cancer labels.
Of course the big one is survivor.
This label poses a few problems for me right off the bat. First of all, when do I get to call myself a survivor? Is it the day of my diagnosis? Is it the day they cut out my tumor? Or is it the day I finish initial cancer treatment?
Do I call myself a survivor for the rest of my life, until I’m literally no longer surviving anything?
But if you survive something, shouldn’t the thing you survived be over for good?
With cancer this is never a certainty.
This uncertainty is sometimes also accompanied by a fair amount of survivor’s guilt.
Why do I get to be a survivor while so many others do not?
And what about those living with metastatic cancer?
Are they “merely” temporary survivors?
Then there is that visually descriptive fighter label that seems to be almost automatically handed out to each cancer patient as if we are all entering some kind of “cancer ring” where we must prove ourselves, duke it out and show our tough side, because society says we should put up a “tough fight” if we want to win this battle.
I wish it were that simple.
And battle, there’s another word that gets loosely tossed around out there in Cancer Land.
While it’s true, I do have more than a few cancer scars that make me look like I have indeed been in a battle of some sort, for some reason, I don’t like this comparison either.
What is it with our cancer/war metaphor obsession anyway?
Many times battle is also accompanied by another pair of labels that generally would be quite complimentary, courageous and brave.
When I read obituaries (and yes sometimes I do, don’t ask me why), the first thing I look for after the name and age of the deceased is the cause of death. When the cause is cancer, I can’t begin to count the number of times it goes on to say so and so died after a long and courageous battle with cancer.
I know this is meant to be a compliment to the deceased, but I don’t like the “final succumbing” this seems to imply. Cancer patients don’t “give up.” Treatment stops working. Patients run out of options. They die because of this, not because they couldn’t fight the battle long enough or hard enough.
They didn’t die because they were poor “soldiers.”
And cancer patients are not more or less brave or courageous than anyone else. Each deals with his/her cancer situation in whatever way he/she can muster.
Do these metaphors and labels somehow diminish a person’s disease experience and death?
I think they do.
Maybe we should just come out and say the person died as a result of cancer and stop trying to “dance around” the deadliness of this disease.
I don’t know why cancer labels bother me so much. Perhaps they are too confining and restrictive. You can almost feel a label’s “heaviness” once it’s been slapped on. Perhaps they give the wrong impression. Perhaps they are too hard to live up to.
Or Perhaps they are just too cumbersome and unnecessary.
Regardless of the reason, I will continue to avoid labels. I will avoid them for myself and try to avoid labeling others as well.
Labels are labels, but they are not obligations.
I’m going with Catherine’s advice. If labels work for you, fine. But as for me…
Thanks, but no thanks.
After all, cancer patients are not like soup cans.