July 26, 2017

Why Death Positivity Needs to Reframe Cancer Talk

Funeral director Caleb Wilde discusses the problem with using warrior language to describe struggles with cancer

This week we were informed that Senator John McCain was diagnosed with malignant glioblastoma.  The median survival for patients with malignant glioblastoma is 14 months, while roughly 10% of those diagnosed live up to five years. John McCain is the definition of brave.

It only makes sense that we’d use such language for a warrior such as John McCain, but, oddly enough, when it comes to cancer, most of us default to war language for the stay-at-home mom who has breast cancer, for the auto-mechanic with lung cancer, for the construction worker with skin cancer.
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There are a couple problems with this cancer language, problems that need to be informed by death positivity.  When we start from the basis that we are mortal, war metaphors start to fail because mortality is our lot, it’s a part of who we are and fighting against this aspect of ourselves leads to this fragmentation, where we assume that death is something other than us, something that is foreign, something that needs to be battled, something that we need to fight against.  We are both alive and mortal and instead of seeing our mortality as foreign, the better way and the better language is to see our mortality as part of our journey. We are journeying through cancer treatment, we are still living our life amidst our sickness, we aren’t letting cancer define us, nor are we letting “the battle” define us.
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It’s okay to stop the treatment, not because we’re “giving up the fight” but because we recognize that we’re mortal.  You’re not “losing the battle” when you have terminal cancer and you decide to forego further treatment.  In fact, sometimes the brave act is in accepting the future, accepting the terminal prognosis and deciding to live your life to the fullest sans the body breaking treatment of chemo and the rigors of doctors visit after doctors visit.  If we use the journey language, we recognize that it’s not about who lives the longest, but who lives the best.  It’s about the best journey, not the farthest journey.  It’s about living life to the fullest, not living forever.  The language of journey reframes our understanding and it takes away the shame and possible guilt one might feel if we use terms like “losing the battle” and “giving up.”  You are not “giving up” if you decide that it’s best to stop your treatment, it could be said that you’re bravely living your journey.

Finally, if you die of cancer, you didn’t lose.  This idea that you’re somehow a loser if you die from cancer is perhaps the biggest problem with war language.
Posted by Jill Fallon at July 26, 2017 2:29 PM | Permalink