Fight for your life

Fight the good fightLanguage is a curious thing. It’s given us civilisation, culture, art, science and Twitter (though that one may not be such a good thing…).

But it’s also tricky – and it can cause problems. F’rinstance, there are certain words, certain turns of phrase that have multiple meanings, and this can lead to confusion.

A prime example is “Fit”, which can mean strong & healthy (as in Usain Bolt) or can mean a appropriate… or correct (e.g. as in a jigsaw piece). And so, if you are going to use the word “fit”, you need to be sure which define what definition you mean. For example, think of Darwin’s famous phrase, “Survival of the Fittest”. Most people think it refers to the survival of the strongest species, but actually it refers to the species that fit the environment best.

So, language can be confusing. And this is especially true in the language surrounding cancer. And, specifically, the use of the word “fight”.

You probably know someone who has or has had cancer. Or you may have/had the disease yourself. You’ll certainly have read about people with cancer, or seen them on TV/movies. If so, I’m sure you’ve come across the word “fight”.

“New breakthrough in the FIGHT against cancer,” say the headlines.

“I’m going to FIGHT this,” says the cancer patient.

This need to describe thing in terms of a struggle is part of our language. No, it’s part of our NATURE. It’s understandable, maybe, but in this context, it sure ain’t accurate. Or helpful.

The problem with this idea is two-fold. First, it suggests that a cancer patient can consciously influence the outcome of their disease. That they can survive if they fight hard enough.

And second, the flip side to this, is that it suggests that anyone who died of cancer didn’t fight hard enough. That, somehow, dying of cancer is the patient’s fault. Which is, pretty much, the dictionary definition of victim blaming.

In the same way, the word “brave” is often used to describe cancer patients and it is also less than helpful. In fact, I’ve spoken to cancer patients and to cancer survivors who find this word particularly annoying. Because, again, it suggests that anyone who didn’t survive wasn’t “brave” enough. Which is, to use a technical, scientific term, BOLLOCKS.

The fact is, if you are diagnosed with cancer, the biggest factors that influence your chances of survival aren’t how “brave” you are, or whether you “fight” hard enough. No, the biggest factors are how advanced the disease is at diagnosis, how quickly it progresses and how effective the treatments are.

Be as brave as a lion. Fight like Tyson in his prime. It won’t mean diddly-squat if you are diagnosed with an advanced, aggressive cancer that doesn’t respond to treatment. Alternatively, even if you’re the world’s biggest cowardy-custard and couldn’t fight your way out of a paper bag, that won’t matter if you have an low-grade, slow growing tumour that is easily treatable.

The truth is, if cancer therapy is a fight, then you, the patient, ain’t the fighter. You’re the BATTLEFIELD. The fight is between the cancer and the treatment. With the doctors are the Generals, orchestrating the campaign.

And like any battlefield, the best you can do is to absorb the explosions. Bear the scars. And listen out for the birdsong that tells you the battle’s over & you’ve survived.


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