When the iconic theater actor and director Roger Rees died earlier in July, many reports quoted a gently worded press release written, it seemed, by his family: Rees, the release said, had “passed away … after a brief journey with cancer.” The diction gave me pause, even as I admired it. It was a clear step away from the familiar description of a dearly departed’s “battle” with the disease. But did this euphemism attenuate cancer in a way that felt cruel to the victim or untrue to the actual experience of, well, dying? I imagined a man walking slowly into the sunset, hand in hand with an adumbral figure. It seemed strange that the two silhouettes were moving in the same direction.
A journey “through” cancer might have been easier to visualize. There goes Rees, gracefully picking his way across the changing landscape, its rocks and eddies of sand and occasional sloping idylls. You are now entering cancer, reads the road sign behind him. Do not expect to enjoy your stay. But that preposition might be inapt, given that not every itinerant reaches the other side of the imperial malady. With, then, not through.
What’s changed isn’t the prevalence of martial rhetoric—it’s that the culture has filled up with supplementary voices decrying the analogy. I’ve written before on how pressuring cancer patients to embody our fond hopes for human fortitude amounts to exploiting people at their most vulnerable. Many feel that likening sick men and women to soldiers places an unfair burden on them: If they “lose,” were they just not fighting hard enough? This framing is insane not only because cancer has no cure, but because it allows us to freight the very ill with expectations we wouldn’t dream of taking up ourselves. Who with a life-threatening illness has the time or emotional space to keep all of our heroic fantasies alive, too? As Aria Jones memorably promised in McSweeney’s, “If I die of this relapsed, refractory Acute Myelogenous Leukemia, and you describe me posthumously as having ‘lost her battle with cancer,’ I swear to God I will come back from wherever my soul may have been sent and haunt the living shit out of you for the rest of your days.”
Science backs up the toxicity of the war metaphor. In several studies, patients primed to think of their cancer as an adversary reported more guilt, higher levels of depression and anxiety, and elevated pain. Furthermore, researchers at the University of Michigan found that “bellicose” medical rhetoric led people to understand cancer as an enemy to be resisted, not a condition susceptible to judicious lifestyle shifts. Accordingly, participants who received a cancer pamphlet salted with words like hostile and fight proved less likely to cut back on cigarettes or red meat.
Read the full article "We're Finally Winning the Battle Against the Phrase 'Battle With Cancer'" at Slate.