By Mary Petersen, Signal Staff Writer
Our dear family friend was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer in November. She completed her surgery and rounds of chemo, and for a few months all was well. But recent blood work revealed that the cancer was not in remission, and now she needs to make decisions about her next course of treatment. This includes considering various clinical trials.
As we age, it is more likely that we will have friends or family members who are experiencing life-threatening disease. If we become caretakers, we feel even more urgency to provide our loved ones with the emotional support that meets their needs.
Oftentimes people use combat metaphors to motivate loved ones to persevere. We want them to be warriors with a fighting spirit, doing battle with cancer. We encourage them to beat this thing, as they say. For some patients, the fighting metaphor is encouraging. The call to “win the battle” inspires them to deal with cancer and propels them forward.
For others, it may not resonate. Instead of helping them to feel resilience and determination, the idea of fighting an overpowering “enemy” leads to anxiety. Some patients may feel that they must fight or they will let their family down. “Fighting” could actually cause distress if they feel they are responsible to work hard to beat their cancer.
For those whose cancer is not effectively treatable, “fighting” and “winning” may be inappropriate metaphors. Sunita Pur, a palliative-care physician, says, “I know some patients find it empowering to describe their approach to illness as a battle.” But if patients choose not to fight, they may be viewed as giving up.
“The language of either ‘fighting’ a disease or ‘giving up’ is a toxic binary. If getting better is winning, then not winning the battle feels like a failure. It divides the sick into winners and losers — those who beat cancer and those whom cancer beats.” Rejecting this binary acknowledges that there are as many responses to cancer as there are patients.
Although we want our loved ones to have the strength of spirit to meet the challenges of disease, we also want to free them from the pressure of arming themselves with fighting rhetoric. Their perspective on disease and the metaphor they use to describe it shapes their experience. Validating this perspective respects their autonomy as they make life decisions. Determining a stance toward the journey through cancer may help to provide ease and peace of mind.
Mindfully living life with its unpredictable joys and heartaches is a courageous act. Accompanying loved ones facing illness is a journey through uncharted territory. It’s possible that recognizing our vulnerability and acknowledging our bodies’ limitations liberates us from trying to fight circumstances beyond our control. Embracing the metaphor of letting go can increase our capacity to live fully in the moment.
Sunita Pur suggests that “Maybe a patient living with cancer isn’t a warrior, but simply a human being struggling to live well and survive while contending with her mortality. Our bodies and lives are infinitely more than battlegrounds.”
Mary Petersen is a retired COC English instructor, 30-year SCV resident and two-time breast cancer survivor.