Who Wins When Cancer is a Battle?

Senator John McCain has been fighting for most of his adult life. Now is no different. He faces a battle with brain cancer. His daughter, Meghan supports him often in speech and writing. She says it is part of their family ancestry to fight. They’ve always fought and that’s what they will continue to do. Yet some cancer advocates and support groups cringe at the notion of a “cancer battle.” Should the idea of fighting cancer disappear? Keep reading to learn more, or follow the original story here.

A new report recently surfaced titled “Missed Opportunities.” In this report, a UK based charity known as MacMillan Cancer Support suggests that the notion of cancer as a battle is not only unhelpful but, in fact, directly harmful to patients. Insisting on cancer as a battleground, the Macmillan group says, puts pressure and guilt on the patient. It creates a system of winning and losing. As a patient’s condition worsens, they feel guilt, as though they are losing the battle or not fighting hard enough.

Many people voiced their opinions on social media after the article was released. Some said the notion of cancer as an enemy was unhelpful. It did not make enduring the treatment process any easier. Others said that the treatment process simply wasn’t about fighting and that acceptance ultimately led them to peace with a loved one’s terminal prognosis. The notion of a battle, said another, implies that when a cancer patient dies they have lost. It implies they failed. One commenter even suggested that the idea of a cancer battle is more likely to make everyone involved except the patient feel better.

A cancer diagnosis affects everyone differently. There are a wide variety of preferred terms depending on the individual and the diagnosis. The distaste for using war metaphors, however, is not new. Identifying cancer with a “journey” or referring to “survivors” can also be problematic. In considering the issue, advocates often point to the fact that no other disease comes with this kind of terminology. No one ever refers to a diabetes survivor, or a stroke journey.

Perhaps the people most affected by this issue are palliative care patients. The use of war terminology, of fighting and surviving implies that patients are the ones solely responsible for their health. It implies that when patients do not get well that they failed in some way, and that they somehow still had the power or force of will to heal themselves if they had just ‘fought’ a little harder. It puts unnecessary and unhelpful pressure on patients to succeed at their own health.

If our common notions of cancer are unhelpful or even harmful, where then is the solution? The answer, suggests nurses and palliative care workers, is to have a conversation.

One professional says that she prefers to ask patients “what doe this feel like to you?” In her experiences, older people often look at cancer as battle. Younger people by comparison view their disease as something they must learn to live with. Being present and listening can be a great way to provide support.


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