With John McCain’s diagnosis with brain cancer, we are seeing discussion about cancer and the war metaphor in the media. My social media streams are full of articles like this one Obama’s tweet to John McCain about his diagnosis was the last thing cancer survivors wanted to see. The author makes an important point about how some of this encouragement is more for the benefit of the speaker than the recipient. It is the voice of someone with healthy privilege trying to find something to say that will help the healthy person feel better about the illness.
I found at one time during my treatment that the war metaphor helped me. It was not someone else telling me to fight, rather it was an internal fight – a mindset that helped me get out of bed in the morning and go for a walk. At the time I decided I was a warrior. I was in active treatment. It was a metaphor that I chose to use because at that time it worked for me. The metaphor worked for a short period of time during my treatment. But then it stopped working. I was no longer a strong warrior, rather I was weak and fatigued and just wanted the treatment to be finished.
The one metaphor that never really worked for me was that of bravery, which is also a variant on the war metaphor. I’ve been told many times that the sharing I do in my blog is an act of bravery. That I was brave to be sharing my experience so openly, but also that my experience in and of itself was an act of bravery. Facing cancer and cancer treatment was in some way an act of bravery. Like I had a choice in it. Personally, I’d rather not be brave if it meant I didn’t have to go through the cancer experience.
The reality is that I don’t in any way feel brave. I never have. I even wrote about having my inner two year old having a temper tantrum because I didn’t want to do another chemo treatment. That wasn’t brave. It was real.
Cancer is not only an attack on the physical body, it is also an attack on the mental one. The focus on metaphors at times helps the ill person to cope, but at other times it doesn’t help. There are times when it changes the focus from what the ill person needs (someone to listen to them, and to acknowledge the experience as it is really is), to something the healthy person needs in order to feel better about the ill person.
I have learned through this experience. I might have used the war metaphor before I was diagnosed. If I did, I apologize. I really didn’t understand.
I have learned to acknowledge the illness and the feelings the ill person is experience (I need to put in a plug for Kelsey Crow’s book There is no good card for this – as it is really a great way for people to learn how to help). My response to someone telling me that their cancer has spread is usually “well that sucks”. I try very hard to just listen and acknowledge the feelings the person is having. Sure, I slip into trying to be a “fixer” at times, but I also try to be aware when I do it. Acknowledgement that it sucks is often all the person needs – well that and some good bone broth, soup, food, or someone to clean their house.