Saturday, July 22, 2017

Can We Please Stop Talking About How We Talk About Cancer?

I like and I follow Xeni Jardin, one of its editors, on various social media channels. As usual, she wrote a thoughtful piece, this one on the many well wishers who surfaced on social media and elsewhere after John McCain's recent glioblastoma diagnosis. And more to the point, she drove down the well-travelled road of how people wished him well, and the language they used.

Jardin is a cancer survivor and for her, and many people, the "cancer is a war, battle, fight" metaphor is a troubling one. I've had this discussion dozens of times in the last nine years in which I've worked at Dana-Farber. I've had it before I was a patient, and I've had it since I was a patient. And my position remains the same: Who cares?

I completely get both sides of the argument. I've been an athlete for many years; I love to compete. And I get the idea that someone telling you to "fight"is akin to a crowd cheering you on in the final mile of a marathon. It can be uplifting.

I also get the point that when you're so tired that the prospect of walking from your couch to your bed is more than you can even imagine; when you can't even muster the strength to read a book let alone write a blog post; then the notion of battling is so foreign an idea that it can feel burdensome at best, debilitating at worst.

But, As Jardin writes: "There's no one right thing to say when someone gets diagnosed with cancer. Even if there were, nobody elected me to be the cancer vocabulary police."

I couldn't agree more.

Different people want different things from their support network, and in theory, their support network would know them well enough to know whether telling them to "give it hell" would be encouraging or offensive. When you are as public a figure as Sen. McCain, though, the wishes come from near and very far. And people, looking to say something (and, no doubt, some people are looking to be noticed for saying something) fall back on metaphors and cliches.

In my dichotomy, there are only two types of people. Those who wish you well and those who don't. And if the intent is to wish you well, then as long as they don't say things like:

"Oh, I hope you have life insurance."  Or, "My third-cousin's sister's best friend died from follicular lymphoma." Or, "Don't poison your body with chemo." Or any similar not-so-sage advice.

I'm good.