Monday, December 21, 2015

Four Wheels And A Funeral

My sister in law died a week and a half ago after having been diagnosed with breast cancer a year ago. I won't write a whole lot about the details surrounding her numerous treatments, the pain, and everything else that follows cancer. Instead I will share with you some of her thoughts and mine.
"She lost her brave fight." If anyone mutters those words after my sister in law's death, wherever she is, she will protest wildly. And oh, how she loathed those pink ribbons.

According to my sister in law, having cancer was not a fight at all. It was almost a symbiosis where she was forced to live with her disease day in, day out. Some days cancer had the upper hand, other days she did. She lived with it and she let its physical and emotional effects wash over her. But she didn't fight it. After all, cancer had arisen from within her own body, from her own cells. To fight it would be "waging a war" on herself. She had used chemotherapy on five occasions and she submitted herself to this treatment gently, and somewhat reluctantly, taking whatever each day had to throw at her. She certainly didn't enter the process "with all guns blazing".

She would like to be remembered for the positive impact she made on the world, for fun times and for her relationships with others, not as a loser. Whether one lives or dies doesn't hinge on a person's ability to defy the prognosis for his or her type of cancer. It comes down to chance and no one wants to feel a failure about something beyond ones control. One of the things my sister in law felt immense guilt over was that she perhaps didn't fight hard enough - a burden that shouldn't have been added to an already heavy load.

And that's the problem; in my opinion the language used around cancer seems to revolve around wartime rhetoric: battle, fight, warrior, beat. While I recognise that these violent words may help others on their journey with cancer, but as someone who wasn't going to "win her battle" with this disease, these words were uncomfortable and frustrating to hear.

I understand why this military language has penetrated the media, charities and everyday life. It is meant to evoke positivity at an unimaginably difficult time in someone's life and it's easier to rally support for a battle than a mess of uncertainties. But I know first hand how it can have the opposite effect and so we need to challenge it and to break away from how we have been conditioned to think and speak about a disease that will affect one third of us at some point.

I believe rather that instead of reaching for the traditional battle language, living with cancer is about living as well as possible, coping, acceptance, gentle positivity, setting short-term, achievable goals, and drawing on support from those closest to you.


On a related note, we drove half way cross country to attend her funeral. Why? Try to get tickets at a somewhat reasonable cost last minute before Christmas. In hindsight, the price of the tickets was probably worth it. Note to self, never try crossing mountain passes in the winter without having a four wheel drive.

As for me - I "survived" my diagnosis. I got lucky.

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