This article asks a question that I’ve been wondering about for a long time: is it insensitive or inappropriate to speak of someone “losing their battle” with cancer?
I’ve seen many people die of cancer and I have never walked away from one without thinking that the person was heroic in their courage and endurance. Terminal cancer is a demanding and agonizing process, no matter how good the pain management and how strong and loving the support system around the person (I hesitate to say “patient,” as that reduces the person to the disease, which seems equally unfair, adding insult to injury). It is a process that requires extraordinary valor. Some people valiantly fight the disease with denial or by insisting on curative measures until they draw almost their last breath (sometimes it is doctors who impose this, which makes me furious, when hospice could bring such a measure of physical and spiritual comfort and peace), some people valiantly face death and prepare for it with serene equanimity – everyone does the best they can with the damned thing once they reach that terminal stage.
I’m sure my own early experience losing my father colors my thinking on this. I remember cringing when I read my father’s obituary headline, “Carl Weinstein, Police Official, Succumbs at 50.” It was so wrong a term to use in relation to my vibrant father who would never have succumbed to anything, even heart failure! I much preferred the headline that read “New Canaan Commissioner Dead at 50” and a third, which read, “Carl Weinstein: Founder and President of Eastman Cable Rep Dies.” To the point. He died. He didn’t “succumb” or “lose a battle.”
I am generally not in favor of any metaphors that indicate that we are ever at war with our own bodies. This extends even to ostensibly benign expressions like, “I hate my thighs!” I believe that it is very likely useful to do visualizations where one imagines healthy cells rushing in and overcoming cancer cells, but I have not experienced having cancer cells (that I know of) and don’t know how I would feel about battle metaphors if I did have cancer. Maybe they help. I feel like those of us who haven’t endured the ravages of a wasting illness don’t get to make that call.
What do you think? I am especially hoping to hear from those of you who have lived with cancer or loved those who have. I think it’s important for pastors to get input on this.