Thursday, June 20, 2013

I Have Cancer, But Don’t Call Me Brave


There is a special lexicon reserved for people with cancer: we talk of survivors and journeys. The verbs we use tend to be martial: we “fight” or we “battle” cancer. This vocabulary of struggle is partly a response, an appropriate antidote, to the way in which we perceive cancer: as an invading force that needs to be defeated. Cancer has always been a disease that lends itself to military metaphors, with swelling armies of cells on the march, its positions firmly entrenched in our organs, its stealth troops quietly setting up distant outposts in our bodies.

As part of this lexicon, cancer patients are almost universally thought of as brave. It is rare to see a headline about someone’s death from cancer that doesn’t describe the deceased as brave. “Swinton Man Loses Brave Cancer Battle.” Since my diagnosis many people have said they have admired my courage — and I thank them for that, as it’s certainly better than being regarded a spineless, simpering worm — but it always leaves me thinking: How exactly am I being brave?

People have told me that if it were them, they would be curled up in a ball, locked inside a dark room, not wanting to be around people. They wouldn’t be on Facebook, or blogging about cancer, and certainly wouldn’t be making jokes. They imagine a kind of mental shutdown, a recoiling of mind and body, where they essentially place themselves in quarantine. 

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