Updated: Aug 18, 2020
One of the 30,000 things which irritates me as a cancer patient is the war time metaphor which is frequently used to describe cancer. The definition of a metaphor according to the Oxford Dictionary is ‘a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.’
War, battle, fight, brave, survivor, warrior, beat. I loathe them all. Are these words supposed empower or motivate us? They didn’t me, they just made me angry or should I say more angry. They imply an element of choice, a choice to go to war or have a fight. I didn’t choose to have cancer. I would never choose to have cancer. I didn’t fight so hard I won, conquered or beat cancer. I had the treatment and it worked and when the cancer came back I had some more and when I had a different type of cancer I had some different treatment for that too.
War time metaphors imply violence, I am not a violent person. I live with cancer and the thoughts and emotions it creates for me. The unknown, the uncertainty, the fear, the anger, the sadness. I can’t beat or fight them. I go with them, some days they overwhelm me and some days they don’t enter my mind. While I was being treated for cancer some days were so depressing I wanted to stay in bed which hardly made me a warrior. Some days I was so angry and tense I could barely breath, that didn’t make me brave. These were natural emotions in response to the trauma a diagnosis of cancer creates.
The war metaphors creates stigma and stereotyping. They imply those who fight live. Does that imply those who don’t didn’t fight hard enough? I don’t think so. Obituaries using the words ‘lost their battle cancer’ upset me. Again they imply choice when there was none, no one would choose to die from cancer. Would they be used for other illnesses?
The impact of cancer is a unique as we are and so our use of language when we talk about cancer should reflect this. I saw cancer as more of a type of weather than a war. Tsunami, hurricane, tornado, monsoon, cyclone or storm they are powerful words but in a different way to war. Like a storm cancer was powerful and destructive. Like a storm cancer was out of my control. Like a storm approaching I didn’t have any choice about where, when or how the cancer would impact me. Like a storm I could only prepare for cancer and treatment in a limited way. Like a storm I was powerless in cancer. Like a storm there was not much I was going to be able to do to influence the outcome of cancer. Like a storm I trusted the impact of cancer would pass. Like a storm passing there have been beautiful moments of blue skies and rainbows and of stunning sunsets.
By having a flexible metaphor which had meaning to me I could express myself event by event, day by day, emotion by emotion, thought by thought. My friends and family hadn’t had cancer or been in a war but they had all experienced a stormy weather and could relate to my metaphor and understand my thoughts and emotions when cancer caused disconnection and difference. Creating connection and understanding through language helps lesson the isolation cancer creates and helps recovery from the emotional impact cancer has.
What metaphor would you use to describe your experience of cancer and why? Does this help people understand what your experience of cancer? How does this understanding impact on you?