Mainstream culture tells us we’re “at war” with cancer. “She lost her battle after a six-year fight,” reads a typical obituary. “He won his war with Stage 4 cancer,” reads the happy story.
Why do we call passage through cancer treatment a war or a battle?
Some reasons are obvious. One is that we’re a war-mongering culture. U.S. administrations drop bombs on human beings with some regularity, and when there’s a U.S. invasion of another country, most of the public rallies ‘round the flag, at least for a while.
I pay no attention to organized sports but I’m aware that there’s lots of war talk about teams doing battle, beating each other, kicking butt. Our political-sports-entertainment complex is largely one of violence.
Cancer feels like an invasion—a bunch of our own cells have gone haywire, and if they’re not stopped, they’ll kill us. Chemotherapy is then another invasion of toxic drugs to kill the bad guys. We drop a bomb on cancer, and if we’re lucky, the bad cells are defeated.
But we’re not really “at war” when we’re going through cancer treatment. In fact, the standard protocols for dealing with cancer include lots of relaxation, stress reduction, soothing environments to foster healing.
The war talk sets up an insidious dichotomy between “good” and “bad” patients. A “good” patient will fight and win. We’re never told exactly what “fighting” means but it has something to do with “thinking positively.” If a patient doesn’t fight (read: think positively enough) she may “lose her battle,” i.e. die. The “battle” is framed as her own, belonging to the individual, not to the society that causes carcinogenic pollutants to endanger public health en masse.
The subtext is that if she dies, it must be that she didn’t fight hard enough. In other words, it’s at least partly her fault. This is the blaming-the-victim ideology that our culture uses to explain other social realities, such as why women get raped or why so many Americans live in poverty. Didn’t they fight hard enough?
In our individualized, competitive, achievement-oriented culture, winning a battle (even a made-up one) is good. Losing makes you – well, a loser. Death is defined as defeat.
Many of us resent all the war talk around cancer. It is utterly disrespectful to the 40,000 women who die each year of breast cancer in this country, not because they “lost a battle.” (And I am not forgetting that this is a worldwide epidemic, and that countless thousands die of other cancers.)
Having said all this, I also know that war metaphors can be motivating to some. Going through cancer treatment, one needs strength, energy, coordination of resources.
I was born on a U.S. Army base, grew up in the military and despise imperialist wars.
Yet when I coordinated my own chemo regimen, I thought of it as a military campaign – of liberation — and I described it as such. I was extremely organized in getting my work done, errands done, shopping done, before chemo days. I had a clip board with charts and lists about how much and what type of fluids I drank and what I ate and when, to make sure I had all my nutrients and that my digestive system could handle the chemo, what meds I took at what times, what my temperature readings were. I noted my daily 30 minute walks and how I slept.
Being a good soldier allowed me to manage innumerable details, monitor what did and didn’t work, and – this is key – feel some semblance of control during an otherwise out-of-control situation.
I also called upon the Warrior that I know from my metaphysical studies as an archetype embedded deeply in our individual and collective psyches. The Warrior is a stance, an energy to be invoked when needed.
At days four and five of each of six chemo cycles, I would find myself unable to move to get out of bed. At those times, I would meditate and channel the energy of Nelson Mandela, one of the great heroes of my life, who had survived and even thrived during 27 years of imprisonment. Mandela was also a founder of the military wing of the ANC. He was a warrior. I would tune in to the strength it took him, and others with him, to weather those years, and I would lift myself out of bed to go do what I needed to do.
In the spiritual traditions I’ve practiced with, being an inner warrior can be part of the program. Hatha yoga includes two strengthening “warrior” poses. Sufis practice an “inner battle,” not directed at anyone else but, rather, at one’s own false, egoic view of self. In Asia, some forms of Buddhism, including some Zen schools, grew from within or alongside the Samurai tradition. Martial arts, including the gentlest, most meditative forms, have to do with being a warrior, whether it’s a real fight with another human being or whether it’s for inner discipline and the development of beautiful qualities.
Can the metaphor of a warrior be useful? I think it can. When it is something one conjures for oneself. An inner warrior fights for her own well-being, to live as long as possible, all the while knowing that death comes near.
Applied by outside observers to label some of us as “winners” and others as “losers,” the warrior metaphor can be downright insulting. When cancer ultimately takes someone, it is no less a natural process as when any living being ultimately passes away.
The first time I lost a friend to cancer was over 30 years ago, when I was 23 and she was 28. Saadia did everything she could to stay alive. When the cancer could no longer be treated and she said goodbye to all her friends and everything she loved on this earth, she was not losing anyone’s battle. She was not weak. She did not lose.