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.

14 responses to “The semantics of cancer: to fight, or not to fight

  1. Don’t lose hope as I was on the same situation also. Just believe in the power of prayer! believe and He will do the rest.

  2. Thanks Linnea for your wonderful share. I’m here humbled by what I just read and will never stop seeing you healed. I am sending you much love and support to help you keep up the fight.

  3. Hi dear Linnea:
    We are back with the birds, here too the red wing blackbirds males are back and maple sugaring started. We enjoyed and survived 2 weeks in Panama with daily 100 degrees, the smart local blackbirds picked envelopes of brown sugar discarding the white in our breakfast table. I avoided the internet!

    Is all quiet en the Canadian front, expect skirmishes soon.
    After checking hip joints another CT scan in April, my oncologist has welcome chemo cocktails for me, here is all inclusive, like in the resort. The mix has bitter on, but I will take it.
    I don’t believe in praying, believe in D, not for Dios, creator of cancer?, but the vitamin.
    “He” took the formula to change water into wine to paradise.
    I always hope for the best, prepare for the worst and like worry dolls.
    Nobody is in the same situation, I feel very close to you having the same type and stage diagnosed in the same year. We are all terminal.
    In 2005 I attended a young relative weeding in Liverpool, U.K. I embraced and wished her the best. Wishful thinking, we didn’t know that tumours were growing in our bodies, mine was found a month later, her in June 2009.
    She writes:
    “Life is so strange at the moment as some days I find it easy but others I find it hard because of the scary side of knowing that one day anything could happen, so at the moment I am just trying to take each day as it comes. One thing is for sure though, life is far too short to worry about things and that is one of the things that I have got to try and learn to stop doing… I had my most recent MRI scan on the 12th March and will get my results in a month so fingers crossed that there is nothing going on in there … If all is doing good I am sure I will start feeling a little more at ease about everything :)…One thing is for sure though, I won’t give anything up without a fight…my two girls are too young for me to be going anywhere yet :)”.

    I am very proud of her, see Karan Waller history and pictures in

    • Guillermo, welcome back. I would have liked to have seen the performance put on by those clever Panamanian blackbirds.
      I checked out the site where your young relative tells her story. I wish her all the very best, and you have good reason to be proud.
      Good luck with those new cocktails; maybe they’ll serve it in a hurricane glass with a paper umbrella. Linnea

  4. Wonderful, inspiring thoughts, coming to me at just the right moment in time. Thank you.

  5. Susan, how are you? I’ve been thinking about you. Stay strong and hopeful, Linnea

  6. I too have waged war on this illness for almost 5 years. I am in phase II of the trial at MGH and feel very optimistic about this new weapon. I feel so lucky to be able to benefit from this drug. I intend to continue the fight.
    It is so interesting to me how I have developed a bond with others going through the same battle. I thank you for sharing your experiences.

    • Evie, thank you for checking in. It is always great to connect with other people in the trial–and yes, you have good reason to be optimistic. Keep up that fight. Linnea

  7. Dear Linnea,

    I always enjoy reading your posts, and I always cheer when you and others continue your good response to the clinical trial. My Alimta and Avastin are continuing to hold the line, but when they falter I’ll begin the Phase II trial.

    It’s been especially fun to come across geographic coincidences as I follow your blog. I’ll be up in New Hampshire in a month to give a talk at UNH, and from there I’ll spend the weekend at our family cabin in Moultonboro. Your neck of the woods, I think. But next year I move to Stanford, where I will no doubt dine at Duarte’s in Pescadero, my mother’s favorite restaurant.

    Be well!

    • Kevin, Hang in there with the Avastin and Alimta as long as you can; so much of this is about buying time, and it is great to know that you have another avenue should those two drugs stop working. Moultonborough is just a hop, skip and a jump from where we live. Stanford, that’s pretty darn cool. It’s a beautiful campus and area. Make sure you try the artichoke soup at Duartes. Take care and be well also, Linnea

  8. Hi Linnea –

    I am new to your blog, and absolutely love it. It is strong, emotional and been very helpful to read. My brother was just diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer ( and I found your site through another blog. I am wishing you all the best and sending good vibes.


    • Tim, thank you, your words mean a lot to me. I checked out your brother’s blog, and I wish him continued strength and the best of luck. This disease picks on a lot of good people. Take good care as well, Linnea

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