The D Word

A/N I started this post a week or two ago, but thought it would be taken as offensive. But I read a couple of things since, including Nancy’s Point and some horrible comments on Huffington Post that have renewed my desire to speak out to explain why, for me, sugarcoating death is so repugnant. Please click the link and read Nancy’s post, as well as the other post she links by Dr. Wosnick. Those are much nicer, more eloquent thoughts than the ones I express here. What I’ve written here still is a bit offensive, I even offend myself with it, but I think the topic is worth discussing.

The d-word….

No I do not mean dirty words like the f-word or the b-word (you know I have no problem just putting those actual words in here). But I meant death/dead/die.

It is strange that we avoid saying dead or died, yet, at least here in this rural area in which I live, some mourn quite publicly for a long time, perhaps morbidly so. On any given day I drive down a road and see at least one car with one of those “In loving memory” stickers, complete with date of birth and date of death. Or I see those tiny imitation grave sites that develop at the site of a car crash, off to the side of the road, complete with flowers, pictures and other kinds of things one puts at a tombstone (I assume other trinkets are also at a grave site) . So, those who engage in this very public mourning and memorializing are acknowledging quite obviously that the loved one is dead…yet in conversations many would say “so & so passed away”? In the example of the stickers on cars, it looks like an advertisement that the person is dead, but no one will actually say “so & so died”.

Why do we avoid saying “so & so died”? We say we lost someone, or they went to the light, into that good night or—hell I’m guilty of it too, I once said right here on this blog someone was “gone”—as if he just went to the store for milk or something. See how quickly my mind changed about the euphemisms? Lost is the one that really disturbs me, because in my literal mind, I may know that the person is dead, and I immediately assume the body was misplaced.

I find these euphemisms silly, and annoying. I especially hate them in Cancer World, where there are combined with the warrior/military language. Given the fact that both here on my blog and in real life I’ve been called “honest”, “candid”, and “direct”, is it really any surprise that I say any of this?

Or is it just in Cancer Land that the battle phrase is used? I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone say their friend/loved one “lost their battle” to heart disease, to stroke, to complications from surgery, to old age (although many of us wage war on that one, don’t we, with our make-up, night creams, etc.?). Although I will say I often hear someone had a heart attack. “Is he ok?”, “No, he passed.” See, no d-word again.

But of course, the battle language of cancer must be upheld, and it is all part of the blame-the-patient package. The patients must be responsible for all aspects of their special cancer…their poor diet/drinking/not having kids caused cancer in the first place, and in the event of death, it is NOT due to the treatments not being effective enough, oh no, it must be because the patient had a bad attitude and/or did not fight hard enough, therefore making him/her a loser.

The reason I insist we need to say the d-words is because it needs to be up-front-and-in-your- face that cancer kills, in an active, personal away. To say one of us lost the battle, like we are bad soldiers, is an insult. It has been said before and I simply parrot it here: I’m NOT a soldier although I suspect my body is a battlefield in which cancer and treatment fought one another bitterly. I was just kind of…there, getting the environmental impacts, like a scarred landscape for instance.

Like Nancy’s mother I do not want the obituary to say I passed away after the battle with cancer (although I do not presume to know why she said that or what she wanted instead). If I die of cancer before I reach the average age at which American women die, then it is cancer that killed me and I want that known.  I want it known that cancer killed me, that medicine and lack of research into prevention failed me, I did not fail in the war.

So for me, no passing away, no losing of any battles, no raging against the dying of the light. Death from cancer is not the time for poetic language, if I’m the one doing the dying.

Author: Cancer Curmudgeon

Oct 2010 diagnosed with Stage 3, HER2+ Breast Cancer. Completed treatment Jan 2012. Waaaaaay over pink. Applying punk rock sensibility to how I do cancer.

18 thoughts on “The D Word”

  1. Excellent post! I totally agree. This should be in those “How to Talk to the Cancer Patient in You Life” pamphlets. (I am kidding, but not really!)
    P.S. I have also made it clear that I want my obit to say that I died of cancer before my time, but I love the language that you used and will adopt that instead.


    1. My family fall into the group of folks who use “in memory stickers” yet will not say the d-word. I seriously doubt any promises I extract now-even in a will-would have any impact on how I my death will be spoken of should I die before any of them. But hey, I’m here today, I’ve got a blog, and I’m using it!


  2. This post as well as Nancy’s post are excellent in reference to the D word. I love what you wrote when you said, “If I die of cancer before I reach the average age at which American women die, then it is cancer that killed me and I want that known. I want it known that cancer killed me, that medicine and lack of research into prevention failed me, I did not fail in the war. ” You really put that well and used the words that are fitting for the situation. Of course I would like you to be here for a very long time and instead get to live till your so old that the D word might happen due to advanced age!


    1. Am ever grateful to Nancy for getting the topic out there. Like I said, I did start to write this a few weeks back, but thought maybe it would be not well received. Many thanks for letting me know you liked!


  3. Cancer killed my Mom aged 46. It killed my Aunt when she was 49. It killed their Mother, their Mother’s Mother and her Mother before them too… If I die from this cancer I want people to know that. I want them to know it wasn’t the romanticised death scene we see in the movies where some meaningful words are uttered to loved ones just before eyes close and breathing stops. I want them to know its degrading and cruel. There is nothing nice, tranquil, dignified or peaceful about dying from cancer. I’ve seen it with my own eyes too many times. People don’t lose their battle, pass on or slip away. People die because cancer kills them. The dying has to stop.


  4. Dead is the word and dead it is… There is no changing the fact that people die from cancer.. There is no nice sugar coating that makes it better!! Great post..


  5. I thought i had left a comment here before… apologies for my lateness and a big thank you for the mention. You even mentioned my mom, that really touched me. I think we really have a problem discussing the “D” word in this society. I blog about loss as well as cancer and boy, sometimes I really hesitate, because I do worry about turning people off. Do people want to read blogs that address death? I don’t know for sure. I happen to think talking about death is healthy and helpful. Like you, I think when someone dies of cancer, we should just come out and say that. I do think it’s time to update much of our cancer language. Great post. Thank you so much for writing it.


    1. Yes, I had difficulties deciding to post it, it was YOUR post that lit the proverbial fire under my butt to finish it, then post. It was actually a part of a larger piece about all language in cancer, but I decided it needed a post of its own.
      Death is a result of cancer too often, and to ignore that strikes me as if everyone is willfully trying to avoid the obvious. If we do not face the fact that cancer causes death, how can we demand solutions of science and research?


  6. Oh, amen. I have heard patients with diseases like Parkinson’s referred to as having ‘battled’ and ‘lost’ as if they had any chance to win against a progressive neiromuscular disorder. Oy. I love the song ‘Seasons of Love’ from Rent, largely because one of the lyrics says, “the way that she died.” NOT the way that she passed or was lost or lost her battle. When I die, I want that song played.


    1. I think I will forever be mystified by the avoidance of the word death or dead. Probably spinning my wheels thinking about it. I’m sure I avoided it too before cancer. Now I’m much more picky to use very direct words even if they make people uncomfortable.
      I have to laugh, I wrote this long ago, and I see I did the whiny comparing thing “only cancer patients have to hear the lost the battle thing” and since writing this I’ve seen the lose the battle phrase applied in many cases. Makes sense tho’–it’s just our culture of turning everything into heroics.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: