The Elephant in the Room is Cancer. Tea is the Relief Conversation Provides.

Stop Calling Me a Warrior

by Sara BlairSurvivor, Multiple MyelomaApril 20, 2022View more posts from Sara Blair

This article is being featured again to celebrate impactful stories from the adolescent and young adult cancer community to help celebrate AYA week 2024! Check out additional content related to this article on our Instagram.

I remember the day I was diagnosed with cancer, but it is all a bit of a blur. You know how sometimes videos are made of snap shots of split-second moments—they just flash up on the screen. Maybe a picture for each minute. That is how I remember that day. Snapshots. Words and phrases but not conversations. I remember holding my partner’s hand. I remember asking myself, “What the hell is multiple myeloma?” I remember crying. I remember my doctor telling me not to Google anything and just to ask him any questions I had.

The days that followed my diagnosis are a bit more vivid. I announced my cancer on social media, the same way I announced new jobs or new travels. I have always been a sharer. I guess it’s the writer in me. So, I told the world about my diagnosis, and messages from loved ones, friends, and strangers came pouring in.

“You are so strong!”

“You got this!”

“You are going to fight this!”

“You are going to beat this!”

“You are a warrior!”

“You are so brave!”

Why do we do this to cancer patients? Why do we inundate them with war metaphors and images of fights and strength? Our go-to rhetoric for cancer is to liken cancer treatment to a battle. To tell them that the way they will “beat” this thing through their personal strength and bravery.

If you don’t have cancer, and I truly hope you do not, you might be thinking to yourself, “What’s the problem? These words should be motivating, shouldn’t they? You want them to feel strong, like they can fight it and win the ‘battle.’” 

The problem is that it isn’t a battle. This is not a fair fight in the least.

Cancer patients often have very little control of how this so-called “battle” turns out. Whether it is because they have no medical coverage to pay for the treatment at all, or the treatment just doesn’t work, or maybe the cancer has just spread too much that there was never really any hope to begin with. No amount of “fighting” or positive thinking can minimize the cancer cells in your body. That is simply not how it works.

I hate being called strong or brave. Without fail, over the last year or so, whenever I post on my social media about something in relation to my cancer, someone tells me how strong or brave I am. At first, I wasn’t sure why this bothered me so much. Shouldn’t I want to be called strong and brave? But I guess the problem is that I just don’t understand what makes me brave. I didn’t have a choice when I was diagnosed with cancer. I didn’t want to be a part of this thing that everyone keeps referring to as a “battle.” I technically could have chosen not to go through with treatment, but to me it is not bravery to choose to go to chemotherapy, or have surgery or a stem cell transplant. I am desperate but hopeful. I trust my doctors. I trust science. I trust medicine. I am not just going to sit back and let cancer take me. But I also didn’t do anything to “fight it” either.

If, and when, the time comes that this cancer eventually takes me, I’d rather not look at it as giving up or losing a battle I didn’t sign up for. I am only 35, and I am living with a cancer that is usually diagnosed in men over sixty. I am fortunate that my chemotherapy kicked cancer’s ass, while I sat in my reclining chair in the chemo center and continued to teach my classes virtually.

Don’t get me wrong, I would love to take the credit for being in remission. I suppose it’s a nice sentiment to think that something inside me is strong enough to have control over the outcome of my treatment. But the reality is, chemotherapy did what it was supposed to do. My stem cell transplant so far was a success. My 35-year-old body could handle the side effects and the recovery because aside from cancer, I am actually pretty damn healthy. This so-called battle was made easier because of my age, early detection, and my doctor’s ability to get me into treatment within days of diagnosis.

People keep mentioning that I am “winning the battle” but imagine “losing the battle”? There is nothing worse than thinking that there was something more you could’ve done. Believing you could’ve “fought harder”—as if that is a thing. As if you have enough control over how treatments work, and how your body handles it all.

I promised myself I wouldn’t get sucked into these ideas. I am not someone who has ever been a fan of toxic positivity, as I mentioned I don’t believe you can positively think your way to good health. But I do think your mental and emotional health can affect your physical health. I know that it is important to stay in a good headspace through treatment and stay hopeful because that will motivate you to keep exercising, eating healthy, etc. to help with your physical health. But sometimes that is just not good enough, and people die anyway.

“They lost their battle to cancer.”

I remember reading through many opinions on this idea of “losing a battle” from other cancer patients over the last year. There is an Instagram account (@thecancerpatient) that has posted many memes or discussions on this topic through their posts and stories. One man talked about how his wife died and she made him promise to say she’d been “murdered by cancer.” Norm Macdonald recently passed away from cancer, and he was quoted saying, “I’m pretty sure that if you die, the cancer dies too. That’s not a loss. That’s a draw.” I have told my partner that when I go, he better say something equally as amazing.

I had never really thought about all this until I was diagnosed. I am sure I have called people strong in the past or talked about cancer in relation to a battle, and never thought about it beyond that. But when I was diagnosed, it was as if it flipped a switch in my linguistically intrigued mind, and I couldn’t help but start to analyze and pick apart the cancer rhetoric.

Here I was, thinking the worst thing that would happen, in terms of the things people say, would be those trying to sell me their pyramid scheme products that they claim cures cancer, or people giving me unsolicited advice about how to cure my cancer—“Did you know that chlorine in your water every day can shrink a tumor?” Apparently, it is better than chemotherapy. And— “Essential oils will obviously help you, because they cure everything there is to cure.”

But I digress—the cancer rhetoric is really the thing that irks me. I find myself over-analyzing every word and wondering where it all came from. Every new cancer friend I meet, I question them on their thoughts about this language. I have noticed a pattern—many of the AYA cancer patients I talk to feel the same way as I do. We are sick of the war metaphors and don’t use them to discuss our own treatment or cancer. But since I have a cancer that is found mostly in older people, I have noticed that in my multiple myeloma online communities, they love to call themselves warriors. I see this word in particular come up over and over again, and much more often in the older communities rather than the younger ones.

I have spent a year cringing every time I get a message of support with the words “strong,” “brave,” “battle,” or “fight,” in it. I do not correct people, because I know people mean well. But I feel like it needs to be talked about more often.

I have no trouble setting boundaries for things that actually do damage to my own mental health, such as when I wrote on my social media that I would appreciate people not commenting on my appearance while I was going through treatment. So many people either lose weight or gain weight. Some people lose their hair, some don’t. I didn’t want to hear anything about it, whichever way any of it went. But most people assume you want to be told you look good, even when you know you don’t. I did not. Boundaries need to be set. And I set those.

But when it comes to these war metaphors, I find it harder to set that boundary. The reality is that the language isn’t hurting me right now. It isn’t necessarily affecting me in a profound way. I roll my eyes—hell, most of the time I laugh when I see it now. My best friends and I often joke about how “strong and brave” I am for anything and everything. But maybe that is only because I am winning the battle. What happens when that is no longer the case?

I guess all I am really trying to say is that I am not strong. I am not brave. I am not fighting in any battle. I am not a warrior. I am just surviving. And that is okay.

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