Welcome to this new column — a column for people who have cancer, people who love people who have cancer, people who treat cancer and people who don’t have cancer and don’t want to get it.
With a new cancer diagnosis every 30 seconds in the U.S. and a greater than 35% lifetime probability of developing cancer for both men and women, we need a more productive way to talk about this disease with emphasis on promoting a substantial and positive effect on the quality of life for everyone: patient, family, friend, pastor or priest, medical or allied health services provider, or at-large community members.
To begin, I’m going to address the negative power of the language we use to talk about cancer.
The National Cancer Act of 1971 was signed by President Richard Nixon on Dec. 23 of that year. He launched the initiative describing it as a “War on Cancer” and that terminology has characterized our relationship with cancer ever since. Obituaries report that the deceased lost his/her battle with cancer; foundations talk about “eliminating the collateral damage cancer creates”; prayer becomes weaponized in Christian support groups; friends mobilize help for patients; cancer patients are warriors and online chat groups are gatherings of warriors telling each other to “stay strong and not give up the fight” and that “others have their back.”
The War on Cancer is in its 48th year. It is the longest war in U.S. history with no end in sight or exit strategy and it is woefully demoralizing. As a terminal cancer patient who understands the influence that language has on our sense of well-being, I would like to offer an alternative to our War on Cancer.
I’ve been a patient in this War for 7½ years and, frankly, I have always found the warrior stance to be counterproductive. It’s combative language that conjures an image of steely-eyed, throat-rattling, chest-pounding, arm-swinging, feet-kicking, adrenaline-pumping, muscle-flexing aggression designed to lend us an air of nobility and fear-masking courage and intimidate the enemy; all of this backed up by the full military strength of the latest chemical and radioactive weaponry modern medicine has to offer. But cancer doesn’t give a damn! It is not, after all, an enemy out there; cancer is our cells gone terribly awry. And the tension and stress brought on is unhealthy and exhausting.
My suggestion? Total avoidance of bombast, shock and awe. I have enormous respect for cancer; it is an unrelenting, insidious, opportunistic, versatile, intelligent disease that too often finds a way to subvert our best efforts to subdue it. Life with cancer is the lonely confrontation between the self-disciplined you and the unshackled chemical psychopathy of the cancer. It’s a chess game for which physical strength and bombast serve no purpose. By its very nature, it demands slow, thoughtful moves and countermoves; it requires knowledge of the rules of the game, specifically how cancer works, what and where are its Achilles heels and which ones are the cancer patients’ exclusively to understand, engage with a Queen’s Gambit and celebrate the power that knowledge affords. It’s a slow, methodical game favoring patience, strategy, discipline and an appreciation for the long-term benefits of the seemingly inconsequential but vitally important decisions we make every minute of every day.
And, when you tire and need a break from the intensity of the game … dance. Put on lively music and trip the light fantastic with enthusiasm, knowing that you still have your queen. Dancing, even if it’s just a foxtrot in your mind, will rock your world, boost your immune system and bring about mental and emotional regeneration. Fighting a war is exhausting, but playing a game is not, even a game that requires wit and wisdom, discipline and patience ... and humor.
Kathy Chonez, of Murphysboro, was diagnosed with lung cancer metastases to the bone marrow in 2012 and was told in 2015 that she had less than two months to live. She’s frequently reminded by doctors that she should’ve been dead a long time ago. She formerly worked as a faculty member at SIU Carbondale in the foreign language department.
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