Daily Archives: March 23, 2010

The semantics of cancer: to fight, or not to fight

I’ve been home from my travels for almost a week now.  One of the first things I did was to survey all the changes in the landscape since my departure several weeks hence.  The woods are no longer clotted with snow, making passage much easier.  Three trees are down in our yard; there was a tremendous storm the weekend before my return.  Ice has been breaking up on the lake, with clear water where a month ago small clusters of bob huts (used for ice fishing) stood. Evidently a few of those huts were not towed away soon enough, and Peter said they broke through the thinning ice and that only their roof tops were visible.

This is also the time of year for maple sugaring, and many of the trees lining our road have been tapped. Robins and redwing blackbirds have returned north, and the buds on the trees have begun to swell.  It is raining; the thawed soil running to mud.

Yesterday morning found me on the road to Boston for a day of appointments. At the hospital I ran into Bill Shuette, who is also participating in the PF-02341066 trial and who was featured on ABC news in November.  He was rosy cheeked and healthy looking and said he’s feeling great.  Yea for our team.

It was a long day for me, as I had an appointment in the afternooon with the thoracic social worker as well as an interview for an in-house film for MGH (spreading the good news).  When I got back to Meredith, I stopped to pick up the New York Times at a local shop that saves them for me on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays (we can’t get home delivery in our neck of the woods).  I failed to notice that it was a Monday, not a Tuesday, but I was handed a bundled newspaper anyway.  It wasn’t until I was almost through perusing said paper that I realized I was literally reading old news:  the paper was dated March 16.  Oh well.  There were some stories in there that I wouldn’t have wanted to miss, including a piece in the science section by Dana Jennings entitled “With Cancer, Let’s Face It, Words Are Inadequate”.

Dana Jennings has been chronicling his experience with prostate cancer for some time now, and he writes very well.  In this particular post, he posits that many of the semantics used to describe the cancer experience are both cliched and inaccurate.  In particular he takes on the warlike metaphors, stating in conclusion that “…no, cancer isn’t a battle, a fight.  It’s simply life–life raised to a higher power.”

Nor does he feel that the words brave, victim, or survivor are appropriate; and he finds the notion of  a “good cancer” (I guess that would be prostate) particularly cringe-inducing.  I certainly sympathize with some of these viewpoints, but I strongly disagree with others.

Dana speaks of leading a life “post-cancer”.  That has never been an option for some of us.

Cancer is a very serious illness and in many cases is life threatening.  Even if caught at an early stage and treated successfully, fears of recurrence can linger.   Beyond that point though, cancers are not created equally and although there is no good cancer, some are indeed worse: offering less hope or perhaps promising more suffering.

I got a ‘bad’ cancer at an early or ‘good’ stage.  However, as it is often wont to do, that bad cancer returned and is now considered terminal.  I am in treatment and will be for the rest of my undoubtedly shortened life.

It was when I began my latest treatment in a phase I clinical trial, that I really began to embrace the notion that I was at war.  It seemed not only apt, but strangely comforting.  As I began to communicate and share my experience from the front line with my fellow ‘soldiers’, I felt an incredible solidarity.  This wasn’t just a personal battle, but rather a fight being waged against cancer by many, for many.  As is inevitable in any war, there are causalities.  But, perhaps like those men and women who serve in the armed forces, I feel as if there is a greater meaning to what we are fighting for than our individual losses, and that makes me feel braver at those moments when I might indeed lose courage.

There was a time when I never could have imagined myself a soldier.  I certainly wouldn’t have volunteered for service, but if you will, I was drafted.  I’ve been at this war for almost five years now, and it is one battle I am willing to wage.