Beware Before I Compare

Truth be told, I have about 20-odd drafts of blog posts on my main laptop. I’ve even had to put the drafts into a few categories, such as “currently working on”, “fix in the future”, or the doomed “maybe never folder”.  In the current folder are 3 different drafts about cancer comparison competitions, or so-called Disease Olympics. I’ve been thinking about this topic for years, from different angles. You know, like when other illness/cause advocates use cancer to draw attention to their issue (hello women’s heart disease month), or when those with other kinds of cancer lash out about all the attention breast cancer gets, and of course, the hierarchy of who has it worse within breast cancer itself.  I swear I will finish them all someday, I hope. But I have a great little anecdote to share right now, because I doubt I’ll remember to put it in the appropriate post draft when I get around to it.  This little tale is a reminder to everyone, my own self especially, to stop wailing: “no other disease uses the battle metaphors; only in cancer are we expected to fight and win!” 

WRONG! (Play game show wrong buzzer sound in your head now.)

First a little background. When I sit down to do some admin tasks at night or on the weekend, I like to turn on some old classic TV show I’ve seen a million times for background noise. I’m talking “I Love Lucy” old. It just so happens I had an episode of “The Incredible Hulk”—yep I mean the old 70s, Bill Bixby show—on in the background a couple of weeks ago.  Good Dr. Banner seeks out some female researcher for an experimental treatment of his hulking out problem. Of course the doc is a female and they fall in love–gotta have some subplot to keep people into it. At first she doesn’t want to help ol’ Doc Banner because she has her own problems: Fatal TV Disease. You know, something vague that will eventually cause early death, but she doesn’t waste away or mess up her hair and makeup at all. (Side note, yours truly pretty much adopted yoga pants as a uniform during treatment, and since my post-treatment profession is pet sitter, I pretty much stay in ratty, comfy clothes out of necessity.)

Now, I first must admit I was annoyed with the episode because the experimental cure involved woo woo hypnosis/visualization/positive thinking. So I was kind of already ruffled by the time this happened: Dr. Banner says something encouraging the doctor to keep “fighting”, she was “winning” against her disease. Yep, back in 1978, it was mainstream for TV characters to say things like “battle”, “fight”, and to “win”, or in this case, “lose her battle with her neurological disease”, when this character died.  And nope, the word “cancer” was never uttered on this episode.

Nearly 40 years ago, battle metaphors were part of our common, accepted way of discussing disease–not just cancer. Many of us here in CancerLand write about our frustration with battle metaphors. We, or at least I, post articles about studies done that prove how the battle metaphors can damage patients. I seem to remember one of said articles tracing the beginnings of war metaphors in cancer to the 70s, when the “war on cancer” began (not that I have enough wits to figure out and find the article).  I would not be surprised if evidence that these metaphors existed even before that. 

I wish the battle metaphors would cease being so acceptable, but they are very entrenched. I doubt change will every truly come about. And the even more important lesson for me, and I hope others heed what I’m saying here, is that the battle metaphors are NOT exclusive to cancer reports. When I started this post the other day I saw a fake article telling me Michael J. Fox is in the process of losing his battle with Parkinson’s. (No I didn’t click on it.) And today I stumbled on a headline about a rapper about my age who “succumbed to his long battle with diabetes” Maybe the warrior language didn’t even start with cancer, but with some other illness. Or maybe it was just quickly applied across the board. Either way, battle metaphors in cancer did not just recently begin to infect how other illnesses are discussed–they’ve been there. Cancer does not have the monopoly on the annoying war metaphors. 

I’m always saying here in this blog (and everywhere else) that I did learn some “cancer lessons”,  but not the airy-fairy, socially acceptable, life-is-precious/short sort. Yeah, my own awful “cancer lessons” post is, you guessed it, in one of my draft folders. So a few weeks ago, watching an ancient 70s TV program I was reminded of a lesson I got early on in blogging: I didn’t pay much attention to these kinds of things before I got cancer. I’d like to think I never said anything so trite as “she is battling her disease”, but I probably did–it’s just a thing people say. But now that I am awake to how loathed the use of war language in cancer is, I don’t want to remain deaf to the usage of the tired metaphors elsewhere, and how damaging they are in those instances too. Never again will I think or say, “only in cancer….” Or at least I will try. I caution myself always, beware before I compare.

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.

2 thoughts on “Beware Before I Compare”

    1. Yes, and I think that is the key–it is everywhere and in general we don’t notice. Siege mentality that we in cancer alone have to put up with this will blind all to the fact that it is a cultural phenomena to tackle, on many fronts.


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