I’m fairly new to this cancer business, I’m still learning the jargon and the lingo. I still read posts from others, who have been walking the road longer than me, and they use phrases and acronyms I don’t know yet. But even though I was determined to never be That Cancer Woman (see Episode 4), it seems like I probably am. And now I’m past the horror of diagnosis, and the shock of surgery, I’m able to take a step away from the immediacy of crisis management and take a look at the wider picture of cancer as a thing, as a taboo, as a concept and as society chooses to view it. As I approach chemotherapy and the long haul parts of my treatment, I’m thinking about the language of being a cancer patient and the expectations that we put on ourselves and others.
That's Fighting Talk
I keep coming across the same words to describe people with cancer - particularly women with cancer. Words like Brave, Warrior, Hero & Survivor. I even used them myself, usually ironically, but if you look at the merchandise, the badges, the t-shirts, the marketing, narrative is all about strength, fighting, battling and winning. But the reality is very different.
You don’t survive cancer by being brave. You don’t survive cancer by being a warrior, or by being a strong and determined woman. You survive cancer simply by being lucky, by being diagnosed early enough, and through the intervention of the astonishing medical experts that work for our NHS. People have been kind enough to call me brave and strong and all those other things, and yes, I accept that I am usually a confident and determined woman. I fight for causes I believe in, I challenge inequality and bigotry, and I have been able to share my cancer story through writing about it. But that won’t make a blind bit of difference to whether the cancer cells in my body respond to treatment. It won’t make the chemotherapy side effects any easier to bear, and it certainly won’t stop the cancer coming back.
Real Life Women
In the Breast Cancer group I belong to there are messages every day from women who are struggling with the physical and emotional burden of cancer, and cancer treatment. Women who are terrified of not being able to care for their families whilst they are unwell, or if their condition worsens. Women who have no idea how they will pay their bills once their sick pay runs out. Women who are scared of losing their jobs because they aren’t performing to their usual standards. Some have lost jobs during Covid, and ask about the kind of work they might be able to do now, or whether to tell a prospective new employer that they have cancer or are undergoing treatment.
Sometimes there are posts from women who are in tears, scared of going to a medical appointment, terrified of what they are going to be told. Women who just can’t face another round of chemo. Some have talked about how they won’t let their partners see their bodies after surgery, how they can’t face a physical relationship and worry about their marriage breaking down. Women who thought they would be fine with hair loss, who go to pieces when they see their shower plugholes blocked with hair. Other times the posts are just women reaching out to other women, for reassurance and companionship in this new and terrifying world they have been thrown into.
Sometimes those posts are from me.
These women aren’t warriors, we are not standing astride a rock in a leather bikini with war paint on our faces and guns slung over our shoulders. We are not fighting a war, or battling aliens or showing exceptional courage against an enemy. WE HAVE NO OTHER CHOICE.
No One Fails
We have no other choice than to turn up for hospital appointments and let the medics cut us open, scan us, biopsy us, and pump us full of toxic drugs. We have no other choice than to put our lives in the hands of the professionals and hope they can offer us a solution and a treatment that keeps us alive for as long as possible.
And sometimes they can’t. Sometimes the news is terrible. Cancer can return, and cancer can spread to the point where surgery won’t remove it. Sometimes the only treatment available is palliative or life-lengthening. And imagine how that feels for a women who is continually hearing those words to describe others - the brave warriors fighting cancer. So has she now failed as a warrior, has she been weak when she learns she cannot win the battle? Has she failed to show the bravery that other women have shown? Of course she hasn’t, of course she bloody hasn’t. She’s been unlucky. Horribly and tragically unlucky.