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Elizabeth Edwards and the Problem with Metaphors for Cancer

Serious illnesses like cancer are seen as adversaries that we must defeat. We battle cancer. We fight our illnesses. We should never give up. But Elizabeth Edwards's example demonstrates that this path is counter-productive.
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It was a sad day several weeks ago when Elizabeth Edwards, a woman who had faced much adversity in her life, succumbed to a breast cancer that had spread to her bones and liver. During her experience with illness, Elizabeth Edwards provided us a rare glimpse of public dignity and grace in the face of adversity. In her last Facebook entry she confronted death not as something to be endlessly battled or feared, but as an inevitable event that is an integral part of life.

Faced with the certainty of immanent death, she chose not to battle on with another round of pointlessly debilitating chemotherapy. Rather, she chose to return to the peace and tranquility of home, where, surrounded by family and friends, she died with dignity.

Elizabeth Edwards's way of confronting illness and death is in stark contrast with the way most Americans confront diseases that have no cures. If we just fight for a few more months of precious life, we'll be remembered as a courageous warrior who battled bravely against the odds.

In mainstream American culture we think little about illness and less about the inevitability of death. For most of us, illness is a nuisance that forces us from the routine of daily life. We get sick, swallow some pills, and take off for a few days of restorative rest after which we get back to "normal." I fit this profile for the first 50 years of my life. I exercised regularly, ate well and limited my exposure to stress. Because I was hardly ever sick, I thought little about the specter of illness in my life. Then I unexpectedly got diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL), a "manageable" but still incurable form of blood cancer. All of sudden my world turned topsy-turvy. I not only had to make decisions that would shape the quality of my life, but was compelled to confront the brutal fact of my own mortality. Illness was no longer peripheral of my life; it was front and center as I went through a nine-month course of chemotherapy and another 18 months of maintenance therapy. Like millions of people who are members of what sociologist Arthur Frank calls the "remission society," I could no longer count on a quick cure and rapid re-entry to my previous life.

This set of experiences took me back to my early anthropological fieldwork in the Republic of Niger, where I studied traditional healing with a local master. He taught me a great many things about plants and incantations, but in retrospect, I was too young to understand the full scope of his teaching. The experience of cancer, however, forced me to appreciate his wisdom. From the perspective of the "remission society" in which illnesses have no cures, I now fully realized what my teacher, Adamu Jenitongo, had long ago tried to impress upon me: that illness is part of life, a visitor who can shows up on your doorstep at any moment; that you can learn to live well with illness, but never defeat it. No matter the adversity of life, he taught me, you should always try to squeeze from it as much sweetness as you can manage.

In mainstream American culture the metaphors for illness, especially those associated with cancer, make my teacher's lessons difficult ones to follow. Serious illnesses like cancer are seen as adversaries that we must defeat. We battle cancer. We fight our illnesses. We should never give up. Those who fight the enemy are seen positive. The warriors may have lost their battle with cancer, but they fought to the end.

Elizabeth Edwards's example demonstrates that this path is, to say the least, counter-productive. The endless war against cancer has produced numerous victories, but do those victories squeeze existential sweetness from the pulp of life? Most of the cancer patients I've met confront their disease with dignity. They don't want to be treated like a brave warrior or a sick patient, but rather like a regular person who is doing the best they can, a person who is attempting to live her or his life with dignity and love. As Elizabeth Edwards last days ably demonstrated that is what a life well lived is all about.