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More on Language and Loss

Posted 2/19/2015

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  Let us consider a second blog about language to be continuing a good theme rather than my being stuck for content. I don't think that we can over estimate the importance of language, and another article that crossed my desk has been very much in my thoughts. From JAMA, it is about the military language often associated with cancer, and, particularly, the frequent tag in obituaries about someone "losing the battle with cancer".

  Although I come from a multi-generation military family and although I am very proud of that heritage, I hate these metaphors. I have told my own children that I will haunt them if they ever say anything remotely like this about me. People struggling with cancer have all too many losses. We may lose our sense of inner strength, our bodies change; we may lose work, money, friends. We may lose the ability to do things that we have enjoyed, and our future options may be more limited.

  We don't ever, from my perspective, lose a battle. Cancer does not win. Cancer may eventually overpower us and kill us, but how we live defines our success. You know the cliche about "Nothing thumbs its' nose at death like a life well lived." This is where we put our energy. I regularly suggest to my patients that we all have to live our lives as though the cancer will not return; if it does recur, we will deal with it then. If it is has already recurred and we are living the more difficult situation of metastatic cancer, it is even more important to live our days in the ways that most gratify us. As one woman recently said: "Do it so you have regrets rather than doing nothing and never risking regrets."

  This is all a prologue to this wonderful essay by Dr. Lee Ellis. Here is an excerpt and a link to read more:

Using the battle metaphor implies that if a patient
fights hard enough, smart enough, and/or long enough,
he or she will be able to win thewar. Unfortunately, and
with rare exceptions, patients with metastatic cancer
cannot conquer cancer (win the “war”) no matter how
hard they fight.We have far too few effective curative
treatments and interventions. We can celebrate occasional
long-term survivors, but for the most part,we do
not know why one person is alive 15 years after the diagnosis
of advanced cancer, whereas another dies 9
months after the diagnosis. Patients with “curable” disease
are cured because treatment eradicates every last
cell,not because the patient did or did not somehow fight


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