Like most people, I was extremely saddened this week to learn that Senator John McCain has an aggressive form of brain cancer called glioblastoma. I lost a cousin to this two years ago, so I know what a dreadful diagnosis this is.
In the wake of his announcement, the internet was flooded with messages of support for Senator McCain. It was encouraging to see people across the political spectrum all agree for once and rally around one of their own.
This morning, I read a piece in The Atlantic on Senator McCain and the language that’s been used to show support for him: “fighter,” “strong,” “tough.” The writer says:
“These are all just expressions, I know, things we say when we don’t know what else to say. But they also betray the American way of thinking about health—as an individual battle, where death is losing that battle.”
It’s funny, but until I went through a battle with cancer (see, another war reference!) myself, I never really noticed all the warrior/fight language associated with this disease. Even in my own mind, one of the first things I thought was, “I’m going to fight this.”
There’s something about these statements of steely resolve that do seem to give us power. Taking on a fight gives us a sense of control, even if we really have no control at all.
But here’s the thing–not everyone wins. Some battles are pretty much already decided before the first shots are fired. Some cancers are untreatable. Some cancers cannot be cured. Some cancers only seem to be beaten, then come back months, years, decades later with an angry vengeance. And people with those cancers get very sick, and then they die.
Did they not fight hard enough? Was their resolve too weak? How could they lose?
People always mean well when they urge cancer patients to fight, or remark about their positive attitude being so beneficial. And they’re not wrong–it certainly can’t hurt to have a fighting spirit and an upbeat outlook.
But that’s never enough to cure a disease. And statements like these, though unintentionally so, diminish the experience of those who don’t “win” their bout with cancer.
No one wants to think about the harsh reality of cancer: It kills people. But to turn away from that truth for the easier battle cries and pink-ribboned paraphernalia is to avoid having the important discussions about how we battle cancer before it attacks people–through research and innovation. And it overlooks the forgotten who are just trying to maintain as long as they can–Stage IV mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, sons, daughters–knowing their “fight” cannot be won.
I hope Senator McCain can beat this. But if he doesn’t, I hope his death will serve as a reminder that we have so much fighting yet to do to prevent this disease from striking in the first place.