April 8, 2002
No Heroes, No Losers
Karen Ritchie, MD
People with cancer are considered heroes, brave fighters against the enemy. We believe that being called a hero is an honor, the greatest compliment we can pay. We put heroes on a pedestal and admire them for their strength and courage.
Certainly being called a hero is better than in the old days, when people with cancer were its victims. And yet maybe it is not an honor but just another burden, in a disease with more than its share of burdens.
Many feel awkward and uncomfortable about the word. They don't feel like heroes, they say. They are only doing what everyone would do - they keep their appointments and go through treatment. Cancer treatment calls for endurance most of all, and while endurance is certainly a virtue, a good thing to have, endurance is not generally considered heroic. (Whether it should be considered heroic is a good question.)
Heroes are active. They do things, dramatic things, like the characters on television and in the movies. Though the role of people with cancer has changed somewhat in recent years, they are still called patients. Most of the role consists of being acted on, not doing anything, being patient. (Whether it should be this way is another good question.)
Heroes go beyond the ordinary. They do things others don't do. To call someone a hero is to say, You are not like me. You are different. We make a distinction between us and them. But what people with cancer want most of all is to be like everyone else. They just want to be normal.
Heroes don't need anything, but people with cancer need the emotional presence of other people. Calling them heroic creates emotional distance just at a time when they most need support. Other people keep their distance, maybe because they think they don't know the right words to say, but they don't need to say the right words; they just need to be there.
We might think there is no harm done in calling everyone with cancer a hero. It seems a sort of generosity, good manners, like calling someone a gentleman who isn't. But if we use the term for everyone as soon as they are diagnosed it is not an honor but just a pigeonhole. Some people with cancer do truly heroic things, and they deserve to be called heroes. But if the word is not recognition of some real achievement it becomes hollow and meaningless.
We have made cancer into a battle story in which the end, the winning or losing, is the only thing that matters. People with emphysema or liver disease are merely sick or well. They may die from their disease, but with cancer it is possible to lose.
There are no true cancer winners. Being diagnosed with cancer is itself a loss, and the losses continue throughout treatment. But even those we call winners, those who seem to beat the cancer, never know for sure that it is gone. It is always possible that it will return. The best reassurance we have is to quote the odds and say their chances are good, but there are no guarantees. And so cancer may be gone from their bodies, but it is not gone from their lives.
Although there are no real cancer winners, there are losers. Or so one would think from newspaper and television stories, which always report that someone lost a battle with cancer. It is bad enough to have to deal with all the stuff cancer brings without having to worry that if you die of it you're a loser. As one woman said, I feel as if I have been set up to fail.
People who die of cancer are not losers. The image of the battle, of winning and losing, is deeply ingrained, but news broadcasters and newspapers do not need to perpetuate it. They did not create the problem; they are only using words everyone uses. But although they did not start it, they can help put an end to it by not using the language of winning and losing.
What if every time a newspaper or television station reported that someone lost the battle they received a flurry of letters, calls, and e-mails objecting to calling people with cancer losers? Maybe they would get so tired of hearing complaints that they would stop using the words. And if nobody used the words, then maybe cancer would become just another disease.
- Of Interest:
- What Now? Life after Cancer
Angels and bolters: a field guide to the wildlife of cancer
The Power of Anger