In Search of a Better Metaphor

Copyright Southam Publications Inc. Jan 25, 2009

On Saturday afternoons, I go to Mandarin class with my two favourite little people. The girls, born in China, are far ahead of me. The nine-year-old reads, writes and speaks at an advanced level; the six-year-old has assimilated the first language she ever heard with the same ease she’s now learning her third language, French.

Linguists say the best time to learn other languages is before you are 12, and I’m now many times past that magic number. My aging brain has difficulty incorporating the melodic tones and new vocabulary.

Learning Mandarin is a welcome change from the crash course I’ve had to take during the past two years in the language of cancer. The Mandarin lessons teach me some things about how we talk about this disease.

As I immerse myself in new vocabulary and new grammar, I don’t describe it as “fighting Mandarin.” I am not a “warrior” in the “battle with,” and I much prefer being a student to being a “survivor.” If it turns out that I never learn to speak Mandarin, I hope no one will ever say that “I lost my battle with Mandarin,” or that I “succumbed after a long and courageous struggle.”

As a woman who recoils from the horrors we human beings inflict on one another in the name of democracy, ideology or religion, I’ve never been comfortable with the militaristic language of cancer. The cancer bureaucracy loves to talk about the Winning the War on Cancer or Conquering Cancer; it’s language that makes those of us with the disease into unwilling combatants or at least civilian casualties. Well-meaning folks also impose the language of conflict on us. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told to “keep fighting,” or that I will “beat” it. Like so many people with cancer, I’ve been gratuitously assigned the hero language of “brave” or “strong.”

I’m not grateful to Lance Armstrong for transforming all of us into “survivors,” although I’ll admit that the cancer journey sometimes makes me feel like those lunatics on the TV show who are taken to a remote location and forced to undergo the bizarre rituals of the immunity challenge.

Cancer is continually called the “enemy,” and cancer treatment is caught up in the language of hostility. I’ve been guilty of describing the life-saving triad of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation as slash, poison and burn.

Of course, there are no right answers. Everyone with cancer will use a metaphor that works best for them. For some, the combative stance may be resonant and helpful. But I suspect there are lots of people who are searching for better metaphors.

I like to say that I’m living with cancer. Cancer is part of me but it doesn’t define me. I’m still the person who works, goes to movies, loses my keys, thinks unkind thoughts about the idiot who cuts in front of me at the checkout counter, and tries to learn Mandarin.

I spend part of my life with wonderful people who are using the best tools they have to help me. It’s mostly not fun. That doesn’t make me brave or strong or a fighter. I don’t have a real choice, and I’d much prefer to be playing glow-in-the-dark mini golf with one of the girls.

The cancer cells living in my body (please don’t say they have “invaded”) are my own cells gone madly awry, and the newest therapies work with the wonky parts to stop their erratic behaviour, rather than “bombing” them. Seeing the cancer cells as my enemy puts me at war with my own body. I’d rather comfort and support my health than declare war on part of myself.

For me, the language of living with cancer is much more comforting than the idea of “surviving.” Living implies enjoying the wonders of our days, rather than measuring our success in overcoming disease. People who “live” with any life-threatening disease don’t ultimately “lose the battle”; they have made every day count.

In trying to learn Mandarin, I’ve started using a new tool — a computer-assisted language program called Rosetta Stone. Unlike traditional rote learning, Rosetta Stone bathes you in language, so you learn as a child learns a language. Slowly I’m picking up a small vocabulary and assimilating the grammar from visual and verbal context, just as I would learn if I was living every day in Mandarin.

There is no Rosetta Stone for the language of cancer. Each of us who must learn it will find our own vocabulary and grammar. But let’s at least consider that there are more peaceful and hopeful options than the language of combat.

Credit: Julie Mason; The Ottawa Citizen


5 thoughts on “In Search of a Better Metaphor

  1. Pingback: Cancer Kick – The Problem with "Fighting" Cancer

  2. I have long been offended by the war language used in sports, in building better communities, in addressing poverty and in living with any disease. It gives comfort to know there are others who would shun the negative and the battle language when talking about a positive initiative or a peaceful person living with cancer. My belief is that abandoning such language in general goes a long way towards coming up with creative and hopeful scenarios.

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