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.
So we must be, have to be, more mindful and considerate about the language we use to describe victims of cancer. Even victim is the wrong word. We are cancer patients.
She Ain't Heavy, She's My Sister
But be reassured. For every one of those heartbreaking posts on that Breast Cancer group, there are dozens and dozens of replies, offering reassurance and advice and support, from those women who have been there before, who are there, right now, and who are still to got to that stage of their cancer experience. But who are ready to hold tight to someone else, to lead them for a while until they are strong enough to take a step again unaided. And if they aren’t strong enough to walk unaided, to carry them to a place where they can get the help they need.
1 in every 7 women will get breast cancer. 1 in every 2 adults will get some other form of cancer in their lifetime. If every one of those people was a warrior, war would be breaking out in every Tescos, every car park and every sofa in the land. We’re not warriors, we’re just people, people who got ill. People with a huge variety of characteristics, personalities and temperaments. I looked at the Breast Cancer Warrior merch on Amazon to find a photo for this blog piece. There were loads to choose from. But I also found this one, which is much more me. I might just treat myself.
As I’ve got you, (I feel a bit weird about this but my daughter said it was totally normal and fine and everyone does it) I have started an Amazon wish list of things that will make Chemo and Radiotherapy a bit more bearable. Lots of people have sent me wonderful gifts already, and I really don’t need a fundraiser, but I know that your wonderful kindness means some of you have asked if there is anything I need. I’m also aware that giving my address out on the internet is a freaking stupid thing to do, so this way, if you did want to send a gift, it would be a safe and secure way of doing it. I also need to lay off the cake, so actual practical things would be lovely gifts to receive and treasure.
The list is here should you want to take a look. No pressure. Honestly, this does feel really weird, I don’t like asking for things because raaaaagh) Anyway here it is: