The Language of Cancer
The language of cancer can seem arcane, complicated, and (to me) offensive. When I bring up this topic, most people first think of the medical language, all those long words that become part of our realities. In the beginning, those phrases seem completely foreign and unintelligible. Sometimes it seems as though our doctors hide behind them instead of speaking to us in plain English. That is not what I am thinking about this morning.
Another part of the language, perhaps a particular dialect, involves the metaphors and the phrases that are commonly used. How often is cancer compared to a war? We can begin with President Nixon's declared "war on cancer". It goes on and on. Obituaries are replete with phrases like "she battled for four years" or " she fought lung cancer right up until the end." We may be encouraged to visualize little machine guns knocking off the cancer cells or little bombs blowing them up. What if some of us don't think of ourselves as fighters? Isn't there another way?
However, I reserve my strongest loathing for one specific phrase in "doctor talk". When a particular treatment has stopped working, here is what is written or said:"Ms. X failed taxol." How about "Taxol failed Ms X"? Isn't that what happened? Whenever I object to this phrasing, I am met with baffled expressions. Clearly, it is so commonly used that our doctors don't even notice the words. Only slightly worse is the fact that every single note in a medical chart for someone who is hospitalized with a complication of cancer begins this way: "This unfortunate 42 yo woman...." Why always "unfortunate"? That is bandied about so often that it has lost any meaning--except to strike me as condescending or patronizing or smacking of the common "thank heavens it is her and not me".
All of this is prologue to this excellent essay from The Huffington Post. Although the title is about Elizabeth Edwards, it is much broader than any lament for her death. Here is an excerpt and then the link. Do read it:
Elizabeth Edwards and the Problem with Metaphors for Cancer
By Paul Stoller Professor of Anthropology, West Chester University
Faced with the certainty of immanent death, she chose not to battle on with another round of pointlessly debilitating chemotherapy. Rather, she chose to return to the peace and tranquility of home, where, surrounded by family and friends, she died with dignity.
Elizabeth Edwards's way of confronting illness and death is in stark contrast with the way most Americans confront diseases that have no cures. If we just fight for a few more months of precious life, we'll be remembered as a courageous warrior who battled bravely against the odds.
In mainstream American culture we think little about illness and less about the inevitability of death. For most of us, illness is a nuisance that forces us from the routine of daily life. We get sick, swallow some pills, and take off for a few days of restorative rest after which we get back to "normal." I fit this profile for the first 50 years of my life. I exercised regularly, ate well and limited my exposure to stress. Because I was hardly ever sick, I thought little about the specter of illness in my life. Then I unexpectedly got diagnosed with non- Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL), a "manageable" but still incurable form of blood cancer. All of sudden my world turned topsy-turvy. I not only had to make decisions that would shape the quality of my life, but was compelled to confront the brutal fact of my own mortality. Illness was no longer peripheral of my life; it was front and center as I went through a nine-month course of chemotherapy and another 18 months of maintenance therapy. Like millions of people who are members of what sociologist Arthur Frank calls the "remission society," I could no longer count on a quick cure and rapid re-entry to my previous life.