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The Semantics of Cancer

We should be more sensitive to how we speak about and to those dancing on the cancer life-and-death line. Leave the stereotypes and the judgments aside and listen. Let's turn up the love and respect and turn down the need to pounce with our own solutions.
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A stranger stopped me in the grocery store to tell me he knew about my nearly four years living with cancer and of the slew of treatments I've been through. He said he admired me because I "keep going," unlike his brother who "gave up." The comment really irked me. Gave up? What does that even mean? Who are we to judge others' decisions on how they choose to manage their personal body and disease?

We should be more sensitive to how we speak about and to those dancing on the cancer life-and-death line. Leave the stereotypes and the judgments aside and listen. If you're tactful and respectful and consider the time and place, I'll want to listen to your ideas and experiences, too.

But be receptive of the vibes you're getting back. I didn't want to hear ideas at 1 a.m. when a hospital nurse brought me to tears over a medication mix-up. When she caught me crying, she asked if I was religious. Unsatisfied with my answer, she said I need to rely on God to get me out of this. I was sleep-deprived and needed an Ambien, not a preacher, at that moment.

Strangers say the oddest things when they find out that I have cancer. Did you change your diet? Are you religious? As if I must be a fast-food eating, God-hating heathen to be carrying this disease. Somehow, my cancer diagnosis makes people feel free to tell me how and why I got this way before even asking my name.

Yes, I live a healthy lifestyle. I do my best to avoid the foods that are thought to cause cancer and gorge on the ones that are supposed to kill it. But you know what? Sometimes I go a whole month without juicing vegetables, and once in a while I enjoy a Classic Coca-Cola. Its bubbles make me smile. I also love fresh baked cookies. Is that what is preventing my cancer from disappearing? I don't think so.

No, I don't subscribe to organized religion. I find spirituality and faith in nature, within myself, and everything around me. Is that why I've been stricken? If I say my prescriptive prayers and sit in a pew every Sunday I'll be cured? That doesn't jive with me. I respect, appreciate, and love that people find solace in their religions and think I deserve the same respect even if I instead understand my place in the world by taking in the majesty of a sunset. Beliefs shouldn't be forced and disease shouldn't be blamed on anyone's faith.

Let's also kill the phrase that people who die from this disease have "lost their battle with cancer." Every year, 7.6 million people die from cancer. There are no winners and losers in this. People die from car crashes and overdoses, heart attacks and skiing accidents, and we don't refer to them as losing some battle. It implies that these people did not do enough, that somehow they weren't strong enough or smart enough to outlast the cancer.

For the most part, people have good intentions. They want to be able to wrap something as messy and ugly as cancer in a tidy box, tie it in a bow, and be done with it. Take a pill. Say your prayers. Drink your milk. Poof, you'll be cured. But it is not that simple.

Societal pressures and stigmas can't dictate our life choices. Cancer patients have enough stress. We're just regular people doing what we have to do to tolerate the tough times and relish the good ones. Let us choose our own path to follow. Sure, guidance, love and support are appreciated; but judgment, unsolicited questioning, and pushiness are not.

Because one person allegedly cured a cancer by eating echinacea root doesn't mean it will happen for others. It's wonderful when people are cured. For those of us who aren't, it's crazy frustrating.

Let's eliminate the assumptions that because someone's disease isn't responsive to treatment that they are doing something wrong. Often it is an organic process that we just have no damn control over. We can do our best to complement the treatments with a healthy life plan, but need to remember that cancer in our bodies doesn't mean a failure on anyone's part.

Cancer is such a broad, general term. We rely on our own understandings and experiences in an attempt to relate, but it's important to keep in mind that everyone's disease is different. According to the Cancer Research Institute, "cancer" refers to more than 200 different diseases characterized by the uncontrolled growth of cells that invade and damage the body's normal tissues.

As specific as Hodgkin Lymphoma -- the blood cancer of the immune system that I live with -- sounds, according to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, there are two subtypes. Under the "classic" subtype, there are four more sub-sub types. Treatment and disease behavior then depends on the stage at which you were diagnosed and whether your tumors are positive for certain proteins and viruses, as well as unknown factors that cause a certain strain to behave a certain way.

I am not saying that we shouldn't share with each other our stories and tactics, songs, books, foods, jokes that have helped us heal. I certainly know that I would not have gotten this far without the outpouring of suggestions from those in and outside of the "cancer world" about things like anti-inflammatory foods, yoga, clinical trials, cutting-edge drugs, talk therapy, meditation, renowned doctors, and countless other valuable strategies that are now integral parts of my life.

I am grateful to the people who are tactful enough to reach out and make these suggestions in a manner that is comfortable and appropriate.

Let's turn up the love and respect and turn down the need to pounce with our own solutions to problems that may not even exist. The choices someone makes may be drastically different from how you'd approach a situation, but there is no single right way to survive and thrive in this wild and beautiful life. Let's give each other the space and freedom to do that however we must, minus all the pressure and expectations.