Cancer doesn't require inner strength

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My friend Ari sent me this, a letter to the Canadian Medical Association Journal, published here (CMAJ.2011; 183: 83) if you have Journal access. It's a followup to this article, "Cancer: it's time to change the sign," by James Downar in October 2010:

The "battle" against cancer

by Paul J. Byrne MD
Stollery Children's Hospital, Edmonton, AB

Downar is to be praised for his brave call to abandon the outmoded language of warfare in the "battle" against cancer.

Our job is to help people with cancer survive their illness as well as possible for as long as possible. We do them a terrible disservice by suggesting that their individual strength of character and ability to endure suffering will pull them through. To do so ignores all the evidence about both low and high mortality rates for various cancers despite maximal therapy and patient commitment to be cured.

So much of the influence on survival either predates diagnosis or depends on early diagnosis and treatment for so many cancers. We must avoid the risk of adding insult to injury by mindlessly blaming the patient for lack of response to treatment.

As a lucky survivor of colon cancer, I credit the expertise of my physician and surgeon for my survival rather than my own "inner strength."

I made a related point a few weeks ago, inspired by fellow cancer patients Christopher Hitchens and Barbara Ehrenreich. While I don't think being angry all the time is productive, trying to force yourself to be chipper in some twisted version of that foul phenomenon The Secret might be even worse.

My cancer is not my fault. Being bummed out about it won't make it worse, and the fact that it's killing me isn't something I can counteract by being upbeat about it either. No more than I could somehow cheer myself out of a severed limb.

4 Comments

It really is ridiculous. Do we think that the victims of Chernobyl or Love Canal could overcome their cancer through magical thinking. Let alone the random, unexplained nature of so many cancers. This places a lot of pressure on the sufferer. Nice to get some expert corroboration though for what it's worth.

From what I experienced from JJ's fight was just be yourself and if that moment, day, week is grumpy or sad or what ever you are feeling it is you.

So glad to hear that I'm not the only one endlessly irritated by obituaries citing a "courageous battle against cancer", as if the so-called inner strength were an actual factor. I believe in self-directed activities to mitigate bad times with treatment, such as meditation, exercise, reading, etc. But I fully believe in all that medical science has to offer me. Courage has no place in survival of disease. Attitude helps us and those around us, yes, but even people with bad attitude survive.

I think it's interesting how much people seem to need to hang on to this kind of language, especially when it's rejected by the person afflicted by cancer. My own theory is that it's a control issue - cancer makes us feel powerless, helpless and completely out of control. Maybe saying that the person we love is engaged in a 'battle' makes it feel a little less chaotic.

By the way - I had to go through at the end of the comment and take out the extra spaces. I had no idea that was wrong!

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