The XX Factor

What We Talk About When We Talk About Cancer

Yesterday my aunt sent me Dana Jennings’s latest moving piece about his experience of prostate cancer. She, like my mother, had had cancer; both of them hated the term “battling cancer.” Jennings agrees. The metaphor of “battling” cancer, and the ancillary vocabulary we use to describe those with cancer (“victims,” “survivors,” “brave,” “fighters”) make him cringe. The majority of the commenters on Jennings’ piece agree. Why then do we continue to use this vocabulary, if the very people who have the disease (and may most need to describe it) hate it so?

Clearly the language of war is the language of fear. If someone can “battle” cancer, the disease is framed in the old American terms of hard work and make-it-or-break-it hustle. It implies that we have some control over our diseases, when, so often, we don’t. Clearly, too, the battle vocabulary derives from the larger social-political thinking about cancer: Richard Nixon declared “the war on cancer” in 1971, and even if we periodically read pieces about rethinking that war , clearly the narrative of forays, skirmishes, advances, battles, and defeats has been well-established.

Susan Sontag counseled us to beware of turning illness into metaphor, yet we can’t help doing so-especially, I’d argue, with chronic illnesses that take place inside our bodies. We can’t see what’s happening, so we can’t develop an accurate descriptive language; we’re stuck using scientific language like “mass” and “node” and “hematoma,” which simply doesn’t cut it in the American vernacular. And so to describe cancer we fall back on the impoverished “war” vocabulary, an awkward artifact of political posturing. But we should examine our metaphors. In fact, thinking about what we’re saying and why we’re saying it may be our largest obligation to one another in the face of illness and death. As I’ve written about in The New Yorker , death, dying, and grief have been metaphorically silenced in this country in the 20 th century, leaving us with a bankrupt idiom for expressing concern and love. Too often, friends or colleagues-out of generosity, perhaps, but perhaps just as often out of fear or discomfort-just want to make the ill (or mourning) person feel better, rather than really listen.

I know. I was one of them, staring at my mother on the couch, wishing I could do something, thinking my job was to make her talk about what she really felt. Finally I realized the only thing I could do was be near her when she wanted nearness, talk when she wanted talk, and crack jokes when she wanted to laugh. As Jennings, my aunt, and so many of Jennings’s commenters point out, those with cancer live with it. They get by, day to day. Until perhaps one day they do not. Cancer is hard, but the language of war seems only to make it harder (and more isolating) for many.