Cancer Semantics

Sheila - West Allis, Wisconsin
Entered on February 9, 2009
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: illness
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I underwent cancer treatment in the year 2000. I hoped I was at the tail end of some medical dark age. I wanted to be among the last to endure chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. I believed I stood on the threshold of a better treatment than gutting and burning the body. The millennium was ending; chemical treatment should end too. After all, I didn’t endure half of what my mother suffered twenty-five years earlier, so it’s only fair that people suffer a fraction of what I did twenty-five years from now, when the word cancer has the same weight as, for example, flu.

“You’re so brave,” people told me when my hair fell out, my arm swelled, and I threw up. I didn’t feel brave. I felt nauseous, but not brave. I did what I had to do. I wanted to live. Maybe there is bravery in wanting to live, but no more or less than anyone else’s.

I fought for my life. That’s what people said. Except for my friend Edna. She objects to using war language to describe illness, though the metaphor is accurate in some ways. I did feel like a soldier in my own private war. I did fight, in that I did not want to die. But now if I hear someone say, “She fought up to her last breath,” as if it’s admirable, I wonder, did she have a choice? Maybe she was just breathing. But if she fought, is it admirable to fight death when death seems imminent? At a certain point, for all of us, there is no more choice. I don’t see accepting death as giving up. It’s a fine and personal balance, when to fight and when to surrender. I never felt close to death. But I hope that in my last moments I’ll be able to relax. I’d like people to say, “She was peaceful,” rather than, “She fought death.”

When treatment finished, I let people call me a survivor. It was obvious I’d been through something. I had the scars and bald spots. I was grateful to be alive. So I wore the pink shirt. I advertised my status. It was the right thing to do for a year or two. But after a while I stopped. I am no more or less a survivor than anyone else alive on earth. My chances of living longer or shorter are no greater or less than yours.

So this is what I believe about cancer. I believe treatment will continue to improve to the point of dispelling the power the word has over us. Already, early diagnosis is proving to be excellent prevention. I believe treatment is necessary, not brave, for better or worse. And I believe that if cancer patients are called survivors, then everyone on earth has to be called a survivor too. Because surviving cancer just means living. And no one survives that.