A Response to Joyce Carol Oates’s Statement on How We Talk About Cancer

As news broke last week that Senator John McCain had cancer, support poured out from across the country. It was devastating to learn that this American Hero, who survived horrendous treatment as a POW during the Vietnam War, now had to fight another battle.  Many used words like fight, beat, tough and win, words we associate with sport and battle. It wasn’t until author Joyce Carol Oates tweeted out “Please keep in mind that illness is not a sport and to be overcome is not to “lose” that I really thought about the words we use when talking about illness, especially cancer.

Cancer touches the lives of almost everyone. Whether it’s a family, friend, co-worker or even ourselves, we have all had Cancer touch our lives in some form. Cancer is ultimate example of being non-biased. It doesn’t discriminate based on race, class, gender or religion. We celebrate the joy of survival and mourn the loss of those that were taken from us to soon.

In reading Joyce Carol Oates short but poignant comment, I realized that I was without a doubt guilty of using words all associated with “winning” and “losing.”  I disagree however, with Joyce’s underlying assertion that those who use words like this are somehow emotionally stunted and don’t understand what it’s like to see someone we love be diagnosed with cancer.

My Uncle was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer while in his early 50s. For those who don’t know, Pancreatic cancer has a devastatingly low 5-year survival rate of only 9%. The very words that Joyce seems to object to are the ones I would use to describe his battle with cancer. He fought hard even though the pain was excruciating. Like a warrior, he never once complained, not about the nausea that never ended, not about the full-body pain that most times prevented him from even sitting down, Instead choosing to pace around the house in an attempt to relieve it. Not even when his frail and cancer ravaged body constantly found itself in an uncomfortable car, driving over an hour and a half to get to the hospital for treatment. And after a year, when he passed away, he didn’t “lose,” he had fought a great battle and was now at peace.

I think there are bigger things to worry about than the exact semantics of the words we use to describe cancer. How about a cure? Or more research? Or more funding for clinical trials? It seems useless to nitpick how we talk about cancer when everyone’s battle is different and personal. Honor loved ones the way that you think is right and use whatever words you feel are right to describe their struggle. While Joyce Carol Oates is certainly right that “to be overcome is not to “lose,”” how we talk about and describe cancer is not her decision to make.

I don’t think using words like I did above demeans my Uncle’s battle with cancer or his passing in any way. I don’t associate being overcome with “losing” In fact, I think using words like fight, battle and tough don’t even begin to describe the perseverance of my Uncle and the strength and dignity in which he held himself throughout his journey.

So this is for you Uncle Hugh, wherever you are up there in heaven. A true warrior if there ever was one.

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