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The Language of Cancer: “Stay Strong” and Other Meaningless Platitudes

by Julia de'CanevaDeath Doula & Thyroid Cancer SurvivorDecember 14, 2023View more posts from Julia de'Caneva

Navigating the language of cancer is one side effect of diagnosis that no doctor or checklist mentions. A cancer diagnosis becomes an exploration of identity, one that seems to evolve constantly. Survivor versus patient. Warrior versus, well, we’re still looking for an alternate care-forward word. That’s the crux of it. How can we refer to ourselves when the “warrior” trope feels problematic? When the common cancer narratives don’t feel like they fit? I’m coming for blood, empty platitudes.

As an all-around sensitive human, warrior doesn’t accurately describe how I feel about my cancer experience. “The call is coming from inside the house” vibe means I have a hard time getting behind cultivated animosity. My own overachieving thyroid cells are mutating exactly as they are programmed, and it feels counterintuitive to launch an attack. This doesn’t mean I didn’t want any treatment—I had surgery (twice!) to remove tumors—but it does mean I didn’t gear up for battle mode before surgery. I hardly call nourishing veggies, meditation, and reiki sessions, and copious naps “battle mode.”

A warrior attitude and even the mindset of “beat cancer” washes out the nuance of different cancer experiences. As someone who will never be declared cancer-free, I don’t get to “beat cancer.” Going to battle every single day for the rest of my life sounds exhausting. I’d rather find a squishier, more gentle way to move through cancer, which is to say life.

Sure, I know fellow cancer peeps who use “cancer warrior,” but I suspect it is in service of the cancer muggles. “Fighting” feels like an attempt to make people, sometimes patients included, feel secure about their mortality. But it’s all an illusion.

Likewise, “beat cancer” creates this false dynamic that supposes we have any control over our cancers. It positions people who die of cancer as “losing a battle.” Was it ever really a battle? The alternative to dying of cancer is still dying eventually, so why does cancer mean living life becomes a battle? Last time I checked, hustle culture was far more of a battle than having some cells that mutated.

When trying to “beat cancer,” people often say, “Stay strong!” What they may as well say is, “Don’t lose hope for surviving this, because if you do, we can’t all pretend that death doesn’t happen to any of us, and I don’t want to come face-to-face with my own inevitable death. OKthanksbye.” I don’t fault people for saying “stay strong” when they’re not sure what else to say, but I also think it’s an old narrative that has room to change and grow. Perhaps we can normalize saying nice things about people we care about or get better at expressing that we are there for them? “I see you and I’m here for you” can really go a long way to not minimize the situation or place any undue burden on the patient. And honestly it’s not even inviting in any additional commitments that you have to worry about upholding. Win-win!

“Stay strong” is the cousin of bravery. When people say, “You’re so brave,” sometimes it hits right, and other times it feels distancing. Empty. While it can take some bravery to face certain aspects of cancer life (ahem, truly sitting with mortality), it isn’t inherently brave to be diagnosed with cancer. In fact, many cancer patients feel anything but brave. Some of the dissonance lies in the fact that “You’re so brave!” becomes a statement of identity, one that implores cancer patients to remain brave at all costs. It’s an unspoken social obligation. Perhaps you felt brave once, in one circumstance, but now do you have to be, or pretend to be, brave all the time in order to not upset other people? It’s exhausting.

If bravery were spoken about as a chosen tool, it might hit differently. “I really admired your bravery when you were just starting chemo,” for instance. But here’s the kicker: only if it’s true. Did the patient really feel brave doing that? How do you know? All too often, bravery hits a lot like, “You’re such an inspiration!” It only works if the patient feels that way.

I know so many cancer peeps who dislike being called an inspiration, and it’s true, it’s patronizing when people say it with the subtext, “Oh poor you, you have this horrible diagnosis. I could never live like that. Congrats. You’re an inspiration!” The implication is that a life with cancer isn’t worth living, which is downright confusing to me, as someone living their best life with cancer now. Bearing in mind that cancer helped me realize that my “best life” simply means one where everything I’m doing, consuming, and spending my energy on is meaningful to me.

Not to mention, cancer upends your life in unimaginable ways, and being an inspiration puts the spotlight on you. If you’re a cancer patient who just wants to keep their head down and get treatment, it can be hard to escape the constant spotlighting. You’re suddenly the spokesperson and feel-good story for other people, and you never even asked to be, and chances are, you don’t even feel good yourself. No one asks for cancer, and not everyone wants to be an inspiration.

That said, sometimes when people tell me I’m an inspiration for the way I’ve transmuted my cancer experience into living the most full life that supports what I deeply care about, it feels welcome and supportive. Because I have put in a lot of intentional effort, and I’m glad when others take notice and make positive changes in their lives, too. In this case, the comment recognizes that effort rather than speaking to this falsified identity other people create for me or simply the fact that I exist in the world with cancer. There is bravery in going against societal expectations and creating a life that genuinely supports you. That’s the actual inspiration, cancer-inspired or otherwise.

Moral of this: don’t call someone something unless you are 100% positive they agree with your assessment of said trait. And if you’re not sure, why chance it? Because, I mean, what is bravery, really? Is simply going to treatments brave or inspirational? What about deciding not to do treatments? Isn’t that brave too? Is it brave to want to live? What if dying was seen as strong and brave?

Given we’re all going to die of something, dying of cancer shouldn’t be viewed as a failure. Dying isn’t a failure.

There’s a dance when I say, “I’m a cancer patient” versus “survivor” or, one that always makes me cringe, “thriver.” The implication is that people don’t think it’s possible to thrive with cancer. Just a friendly reminder, health isn’t the absence of disease. The subtext says, “Yes I have cancer, but look at how amazing I am achieving all of these normative societal benchmarks and success! Don’t worry about me! While you’re at it, don’t worry about you getting cancer either! You won’t die! I hope you’re comfortable now!”

To be honest, I’ve only used “thriver” in situations where I code-switched my narrative to make cancer muggles more comfortable. Though goodness knows I never know how to refer to fellow cancer experiencers, for fear that I mislabel their experience by projecting my own, too. Slippery slopes abound!

Sometimes I just say, “I’m a cancer experiencer,” but that confuses people. “Survivor” seems to imply cancer-free, while “patient” connotes active treatment. What about cancer maintenance mode, whether cancer-free or not? Sometimes I skip the label altogether and simply reference “being diagnosed in 2018.” This leaves grey area to allow for the nuances and uncertainty of maintenance mode. But cancer muggles in particular love reassurance and certainty, and usually follow up by asking, “But you’re good now, right?” To which I often say, “Well I’m here right now!” Or something to that effect. But my subtext is “Oh you’re uncomfortable with uncertainty? That’s cute. Not my problem.”

The inability to speak openly about death and dying means we create these ridiculous euphemisms and platitudes to make people feel better. But is it really making anyone more comfortable? I deeply believe that if society would talk more openly about mortality and the reality of young people dying, we could also find our way to a more supportive, or at minimum, a thoughtful and informed language around cancer.

And if reading any of this made you uncomfortable, I say to you, “Stay strong.”

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