Stop battling cancer – Perhaps ending “the war on cancer” begins with removing it from the battlefield altogether. Since publishing The Cancer Whisperer and becoming a high-profile patient activist, several UK newspapers have run stories about the way I have approached my incurable cancer diagnosis, for which I am grateful. But they often run a headline about my ‘cancer battles, a term I would never use, as if quoting me directly (which leads to messages from my followers asking if I have betrayed the cause!). There is no ill intent here. It is simply automatic language. It is how we speak about this disease. But it does not reflect my experience. I have never treated cancer as an enemy to fight. On the contrary, I often speak on behalf of many cancer patients who want such language to stop.
It was Richard Nixon who first declared the “war on cancer” for political capital, and the metaphor stuck. The ones who survive “win” and the ones who die “lose.” But it doesn’t feel this way to many dying patients or their families, because they win every day: when they ride another wave of agony without bitterness; when they pick themselves up off the bathroom floor after hours of post-chemo vomiting and make dinner for their children; when they make their own choices in a medical system that sometimes tries to force them down a treatment path they don’t want to go; when they sit in stunned gratitude for another sunrise as the rest of the world rushes by; when they express the grief that has crowded their throats for decades or the love they feared it would be weak to show; when they lean into dying like a child leans against its mother as a stranger comes to the door.
At one level I understand it, of course. I would give my “terminal” diagnosis back right now if I could. My illness has been brutal at times and may yet wrench me from my daughter while she’s still young. We need to throw everything at it to live as long as we can. But from a psychological perspective, the metaphor of a “battle” simply adds to our suffering. It creates an angry, defiant, even resentful mind-set that is, in itself, negative and stressful. It pits us against our own bodies when we most need to listen to and love them.
A recently published landmark study of women with breast cancer has shown that markers of inflammation called cytokines are elevated in patients who suffer from social isolation and ‘negative emotions’. Indeed, the very process of being diagnosed with cancer creates a surge of cytokines. Correspondingly, research has also shown that emotional acceptance diminishes distress and increases survival. This goes to the heart of all the work I have been doing with cancer patients in recent years. Going to war with this disease is the antithesis of emotional acceptance (which does NOT mean resignation). It will turbo-charge our cytokines.
Even Stand Up To Cancer, a UK charity which does fantastic work to raise money for cancer patients, uses this language: “rebel against cancer”; “a killer night of fundraising”; “text FIGHT to donate”; “smash cancer”. When Channel 4 presented it this way on one of their big fundraising programmes, many patients messaged me to say they couldn’t watch it and turned off their TVs. This imagery simply does not reflect our experience.
Why is this the dominant way of speaking about cancer? We don’t talk about “the war on diabetes” or “the battle with flu”. Yet how often do we read that So-and-So “lost their brave battle with cancer”? That phrase seems to be pulled out of a river running through our culture, without noticing how polluted the water is or how inadequate the epitaph. Such language constructs a succeed-or-fail framework, narrowing the narrative into winning and losing, beating and being beaten, fighting or giving up. It diminishes our lives and deaths; it sets aflame a global gallery of canvases upon which millions of cancer patients have painted their exquisitely personal, painful, and awe-inspiring works of art.
Marie Curie and McMillan, two leading UK charities, are beginning to question this language, but we all need to go further. The media needs to change their narrative too. We need a bigger dialogue about cancer. The so-called “war” is not delivering a cure. Nor is it delivering any peace, especially for those who win even when they “lose”. I have witnessed such victories many times these past few years. I have held the hands of dying patients I have come to love in very short amounts of time, and I have seen them find awe in the midst of agony and light in the heart of darkness. I have witnessed them finding fulfillment and resting in peace before they died. My beloved father, just three months ago, was one of them. His death was not a “defeat”, but an heart-expanding ending to a life well lived.
Cancer is not an enemy. It’s an illness. Like all illnesses, as I see them, it points to what is out of kilter in our minds, bodies, hearts and spirits. And when cancer becomes a pandemic, as surely cancer has become, it is pointing to what is out of kilter in our society, our environment and our world. This is why I called my first book, The Cancer Whisperer. It was my attempt to find another metaphor. It needn’t be that one, of course. But please let’s find an alternative to all this warmongering. Soon.
Apparently NBC agrees with Sophie on this issue. They just released this article on John McCain not “losing” his battle with glioblastoma because CANCER IS NOT A WAR
Sophie Sabbage is the bestselling author of The Cancer Whisperer, which has been translated into eleven languages, and Lifeshocks – And How to Love Them which is out in hardcover in the UK. Both published by Coronet, an imprint of Hachette.