I am generally an opponent of militarized language in my own life and the culture around me. I think that using war and battle metaphors erodes our sensitivities and normalizes the suffering of war. For these reasons and many others, I have tried to come up with a different framework for talking about my cancer, but at times, that has been hard.
Several years ago I read Susan Sontag's book, Illness as Metaphor, which I found to be an interesting and powerful critique of how many chronic illnesses have been addressed by culture and society, but the book was largely about the danger of the use of metaphor to describe illness. I have found that I needed to express how I was feeling to get through this experience. In order to express how I was feeling, I needed the tool of potent metaphor. But too often, I couldn't think of language absent of militaristic terms.
For example, in trying to describe my feelings just after getting my good test results last month, I had one clear image in my head; one truly effective metaphor. I felt like a General at the end of a war, who had been so focused on each individual battle that they couldn't see beyond what was right in front of them, now standing atop a hill and surveying the final battlefield, still coming to grips with the losses and successes, while a ticker tape parade waited at home. This metaphor captured the complexity of my relief, joy, grief and the intensity of the moment, but like so many of my metaphors along this cancer journey, is soaking with militaristic imagery.
A few weeks ago, an opinion piece appeared in the New York Times that dealt with this subject in what I felt was a thoughtful way, written by Daniel Menaker. As I continued to contemplate the ease and frequency with which I fall back on the use of this vocabulary, I was really interested in what he had to say.
Menaker opens his column:
EVERY day in obituaries, you will find combat metaphors about people who have died of cancer. "After a heroic battle against cancer," "valiant fight against melanoma" And so on. News stories routinely refer to "weapons" against the illness, the "arsenal" of drugs, "victories."
This line reminded me of something that Christopher Hitchens wrote in the first of his extraordinary columns about his cancer experience in Vanity Fair:
You’ve heard it all right. People don’t have cancer: they are reported to be battling cancer. No well-wisher omits the combative image: You can beat this. It’s even in obituaries for cancer losers, as if one might reasonably say of someone that they died after a long and brave struggle with mortality. You don’t hear it about long-term sufferers from heart disease or kidney failure.
For so long, I have struggled to figure out why these combat metaphors are so common for cancer patients specifically, and why and how they have been useful for me over the years.
I'm not sure I'll ever be able to live with the military language around cancer that label me a survivor, a fighter, a victim; but I'm not sure I'll ever be able to fully describe my experience in the vacuum of such language. Menaker does a great job of explaining the utility of these terms. He writes:
But I also endorse the militarization of cancer talk. At least for some patients, and at least when they talk to themselves or those close to them about their situation. Because all of us are — by part of our nature — combative creatures, and it can be emotionally useful to view cancer as an enemy, even when you know it’s not.
It can motivate us to follow the often complex treatment regimens (regimens!) involved. It can help us feel less frightened and more composed when facing surgery. It can strengthen our resolve to stay in the best shape possible and to deal with pain when it comes. It may be a kind of self-delusion, but it may also assist self-preservation. And it may help others to face their illness with less fear than they would have had otherwise. There is nothing wrong with being emulable.
There’s a strong reason that cancer in particular tends to elicit warfare language: it is so radically territorial in its actions. That is, it’s usually trying to take over the physical space that is one’s body, just as a foreign army tries to take over one’s country. Also, try as we may, we cannot scour the language of metaphor. “Cancer” itself is a personification — well, a crustaceanification. A malignancy doesn’t know or care if it’s “mal.” It’s not evil. It just is.
Both authors also explain what does and does not work about these metaphors in their personal experiences. Hitchens writes:
Myself, I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient. Allow me to inform you, though, that when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don’t read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.
When I read this, I breathed a sigh of recognition. These terms didn't feel wrong only because their source is in war and violence, they also made me feel disingenuous. Words like "brave" and "warrior" made me feel like a fraud. What is valiant about fighting (there's that term again...) for your own life? Survival is the most base, simple thing we're all biologically programmed to do. And my experience reflected Hitchens'; during treatment, you often feel anything but strong or valiant. Still, the question persists: what is a new metaphor or set of terms to use to articulate aspects of this experience?
In his article, Menaker says that he has found it useful to think of cancer as a "problem." He writes:
...it seems more calming, less victimizing, to think of the disease as a problem, not an enemy. A problem to be worked on, considered from this angle and that, and solved. Or just as if not more likely, not solved. But in either case not a malevolent foe who is going to vanquish or surrender to me. There’s no “volent” involved, after all.
I see his logic here, but I wonder if the term "problem" doesn't bring along its own set of issues. A "problem" is something that, with the right set of resources and the correct strategy, you are able to solve. There have been times when, in order to cope with the reality I was facing, I had to acknowledge that this might be a problem without a solution. And, does the notion of cancer-as-problem make those who do not live less effective problem-solvers? That just doesn't resonate with me.
My own shaky version of a solution to this larger question is to instead, try my best to think about cancer as a journey. A journey is neither positive nor negative on its face, but does bring with it the inherent positivity of forward motion. A journey doesn't imply a struggle per say, but does evoke the idea of stops and lessons along the way.
To reframe and make more accurate the metaphor of the General on the hill, I have sought out the right words to describe not the war, but the journey.
I think that the emotions of the past few weeks have been made more complex because of my embrace of the journey metaphor, but that in the long run, I am better off for that. It has enabled me to understand that this significant stop along my path is not the final one, not an ending of any kind, but rather a milestone to be celebrated and contemplated as I continue down the road.