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Thoughts on John McCain’s Cancer Diagnosis, Cancer Battle Talk & His “No” Vote on #SkinnyRepeal

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?”

“Remember the billboard?”

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.

Now onto 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 – 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?

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Sen. John McCain / Photo by Jim Greenhill, Flickr via wiki Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic


Is there too much war talk in Cancer Land?
Does battle talk work for you?


11 thoughts to “Thoughts on John McCain’s Cancer Diagnosis, Cancer Battle Talk & His “No” Vote on #SkinnyRepeal”

  1. Hi Nancy,

    This is a really great post. I cringe when people admire how brave I was throughout diagnosis and treatment. I was petrified throughout. Still am. I always felt burdened by others’ expectations of me.

    I totally believe in quality healthcare for all. No one should die because of lack of healthcare. Period.

    1. Beth, That’s the thing, many such comments can and do add to cancer’s burden. And yes, quality healthcare should be there for anyone based solely on the fact we are all human beings deserving of nothing less. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Hi Nancy!
    You said it all once again so eloquently. Thank you! The health care crisis is so difficult for me to talk about rationally because I deal with it everyday! I agree health care should be available for everyone!

    1. Sandy, I can understand why the entire healthcare debate is extra challenging for you. I think we’ve made it all way too complicated. Boils down to the simple question, is healthcare a right or a privilege. Thank you for sharing where you stand.

  3. Thanks Nancy–I fear the war metaphor debate will never end.
    As you know I was also grateful for the 3 senators’ no votes, but my relief is not deep. Our country’s attitudes about healthcare AND how insurance even works needs major tweaking.
    Nearly 4 years ago I listened to an interview with a couple of former military that has caused me to think differently about the war metaphors, our cultural fascination with going to “war on” every damn thing. I’ve started and trashed many blog posts about it, maybe I’ll finish it soon. If I can get focused–grrr….

  4. Hi Nancy – You captured so much in this post and all of it is so important. Thank you for continuing to tackle these important topics. And you’re right, the war metaphors will continue and they should be discussed because not every patient appreciates them, including me. Like you said, words matter. Some of these words give the impression that it is up to the patient to survive when the reality of this is completely different. I also think it’s distracting. Our society needs to be woken up and be encourage to support real research.

    Healthcare is a HUMAN RIGHT, not a privilege. I still cannot believe there are people who actually feel otherwise. It’s pretty disgusting if you ask me, and also scary. I can’t imagine myself facing any illness without insurance and being in serious debt because I want to hold on to my life. Glad we got the votes to protect our right to healthcare. xoxo

    1. Rebecca, I think I probably tried to cover too much in this post. Oh well. I am so weary of the war talk in Cancer Land. The phrases are so trite. I agree with you about healthcare. And I cannot understand either how some feel they have the right to it and others do not. Boggles my mind. So much inequality and disparity. I am still very wary about what might happen with healthcare. Hoping for the best, but…Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  5. Hi Nancy. I agree with you and I love the poster with all the cliched phrases. I think we’ve all probably heard at least some of them. I have a bone to pick with the “battle” analogy as well. Are people who die from he disease now “losers” because they didn’t survive? Are they weak because they succumbed? So far I seem to be doing well after treatments, not because I fought well ( I endured and that’s different), not because I am courageous ( I was scared to death), and not because I was positive ( I was angry throughout). I got through the process because I had access to great medical care. I don’t want to discount the importance of the support of friends and family but without modern medicine I don’t think my chance of survival would be nearly as rosy. Everyone should have the same opportunities that I had and that’s why I believe access to health care should be a right not a privilege.

  6. Hi Nancy–
    I never saw this post when it first came out, but just recently when it was reposted on Facebook, probably because of John McCain’s death. I had an interesting discussion with some friends on this very topic. My friend, B, was telling me how she admired me, and she didn’t know if she could have gone through all the stuff I did when I had breast cancer a couple of years ago. I told her I didn’t do it because I was brave. I did it because I didn’t have a choice. If I want to have as much quality time as possible with my children, and live to someday see my grandchildren, I had to do what I did. Bravery has nothing to do with it. You do what you have to do to survive. We also talked about the whole “cheerleader” thing, but it started when she said her deepest regret was that when her dad told her he was dying and wouldn’t make it to his birthday in a couple of months, she cut him off with pep talks and fight phrases. She said one of her deepest regrets was not letting him talk about what he was feeling and experiencing. I can relate–one of my children did the cheerleading, and about got hysterical whenever I tried to talk about “what if” and whether I was strong enough. Instead of being comforted and uplifted, I felt isolated and alone. The other child, somehow, was able to let me talk and let me cry and just tell me he loved me and would be there. I was so thankful–without his attitude, I would have felt completely alone, despite their physical presence. It’s ok with me when acquaintances do the cheerleading and fight talk, because I’m a very private person and it keeps the talk superficial. But it is a godsend when those closest to you let you feel your feelings and share them.

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