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The reluctant (cancer) warrior September 20, 2009

Posted by PAS in cancer, survivorship.
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Patrick Swayze

Patrick Swayze via last.fm

The metaphors for cancer and I do not see eye to eye.
I’ve been a person working for peace since the early 70s; it’s been uncomfortable at best to be cast in the role of cancer ‘warrior,’ fighting tooth and nail (or even better, to the death) against the faceless mortal enemy, cancer.

The metaphors get worse whenever someone famous dies of cancer. See, I said it — dies of cancer. Plain words, plain English, for a plain fact of life — that life ends in death, and that all too often, those of us with Stage IV cancers die of our cancers. See, if we died in a natural disaster, THAT would be news. But dying of cancer is the eventuality, the reality for most stage IV patients. Maybe that’s why the news-gatherers try to pretty up the language.

Lost his/her battle…
Fought hard, but in the end lost…
Never quit fighting…
Was a fighter to the end…
In the war on cancer…

I’ve struggled sometimes to find the right language to describe what this is for me. I’m not ‘fighting’ my cancer — literally. I am not in treatment right now, but on very strict monitoring to ensure that I stay disease-free (NED.) I fight with my emotions, I fight with chemo side effects, I fight with the lingering issues from my surgical recovery — but I am living with cancer. I am dancing with cancer. The only relevant argument in that is ‘who leads?’

Living with cancer. Until the day that I’m dying with cancer.
But I am no cancer warrior.

The true cancer warriors are the healthcare professionals and the scientists who work every day to try to get a handle on treatment protocols. These warriors fight constantly for the tools they need to invent new and better methods of killing the cancer cells in my body. They are taking up what they have to create arms, they are trying to destroy cancer.

Me? I just put their most efficacious drug-weapons into my body, and go to sleep.
Hopefully, when I wake up, cancer cells are dead or dying. It’s the Star Trek neutral zone approach to conflict. I don’t/can’t intervene in the conflict within my cells except by showing up in infusion or radiation or for surgery — or not. But showing up is the extent of my strategy, my single show of strength, the only card I’ve got in the game. I have no war-room, no way to stage a covert offensive or a coup. Cancer isn’t that definable an enemy. If this is a war, then it’s far more like a war on terror — a war on the unseen and undefinable — than it is a war on something concrete.

Wouldn’t it be less painful and less bloody if every war could be fought like that–in our sleep, no casualties but cell communities?

Patrick Swayze died this week from complications due to Stage IV pancreatic cancer. It brought out a rash of new warrior and battle metaphors for cancer, and those of us who are living with it. Maybe Swayze would have welcomed the metaphors that make him a cancer warrior, but all of the battle-warrior metaphors to describe cancer survivors, people living with cancer, just left me battle-weary. They reminded me again of how reluctant I am to be in that role

As I watched a clip of Swayze in Dirty Dancing, I was struck by the leonine grace of the man. Sure, he could throw a punch or a kick (have you ever seen Road House?) But the mental clip I have of him is not armed and dangerous, off to fight a faceless enemy. I will always see him as that tightly controlled, lion-like dancer, poised to hunt and to pounce and dancing through his life.

I have ofen called this my dance with cancer, and if that’s what this is, then Swayze is the visual embodiment of dancing with cancer. He lived boldly, comfortable in his own skin, understanding that he couldn’t kill the cancer but determined to live his life anyway. If he was dancing with cancer, no question he was leading. And at the end, he didn’t lose any battle. He lived boldly, as he wanted to live.

Then he died of complications related to stage IV pancreatic cancer. He died as he lived, with power and grace. Leading his personal dance with cancer. No warrior metaphors needed.

Do you like the battle metaphors for cancer, the idea of being a cancer warrior? Do you see living with cancer as a war? What is the cancer metaphor that works for you?

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1. Twitter Trackbacks for The reluctant (cancer) warrior « Life Out Loud [gaelenscafe.wordpress.com] on Topsy.com - September 20, 2009

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2. Rotorhead - September 20, 2009

It’s a tired analogy. I don’t mind it used for cancer folks, but it’s off-putting when I hear a pro athlete refer to themselves as such (Kellen Winslows’ famous “I’m a soldier!!!” tirade).

I don’t see myelf as a “cancer warrior” or my healthcare team as such either. I don’t see a “war” on cancer. When you go to war, you go all-in with overwhelming superiority on all fronts. I don’t see that with cancer. At best we’re having some low-level regional conflicts with cancer. I don’t see a road to victory with the status quo.

Erectile dysfunction? Now that was a war. They beat that one down so bad, they now need help lines in case one’s boner won’t go away. A sad commentary on our medical priorities.


3. azahar - September 22, 2009

Sword of Damocles?

I really dislike the use of the warrior and war metaphors. Especially because it often insinuates that people who “lose the battle” somehow gave up or didn’t fight hard enough. Someone once suggested that it’s more like being raped, which makes a certain sense.

I don’t think of myself as fighting cancer. I see myself struggling with various aspects of having a fatal illness that everyone seems to be treating as if there were hope for a cure. With each clear scan I feel cautiously optimistic that the next remission will be a long one. Meanwhile, I keep trying to live as much as possible without looking up at the sword.

4. gaelenscafe - September 23, 2009

RH, I agree that what we can muster against cancer is far closer to a police action than a war…and Az, like you I see my fights against things other than the cancer itself. I fought (and won) for every minute of conscious time while on chemo. I fought (and am winning, fingers crossed) the daily battle to stay active and to work through my post-op issues. I am living with cancer, living with remission — not warring against it. When my options run out, it will be time and medicine which ‘fail’ — not me. And meanwhile, I too try not to focus too hard or long on the sword hanging overhead.

5. HCG Diet - October 1, 2009

R.I.P Patrick Swayze

6. Savannah - October 17, 2009

Awesome blog!

I thought about starting my own blog too but I’m just too lazy so, I guess Ill just have to keep checking yours out.

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