People react strangely to news of a cancer diagnosis. One of the strangest reactions by far was from a former colleague, who reacted quite angrily. Apparently, his niece, a young, 15-year-old girl, had recently been diagnosed with cervical cancer and was enduring gruelling treatment and taking time off from high school to get better. He exclaimed to me with fervour: "If cancer were a person, I'd punch it in the face!"
His frustrated reaction caught me a little off guard. It seemed immediately silly. With a furrowed brow and overcast eyes, I nodded in commiseration. Cancer is an asshole!, I tried to think. But, I couldn't. I didn't believe that. I was supposed to feel grateful and appreciative that this man was willing to take up arms and defend helpless victims like me, but I couldn't help chuckling at the futility of his remark. It was macho and frankly, a little pathetic. I walked away from the conversation disconcerted and confused.
I am still disturbed by my reaction. Cancer is frequently personified by fundraisers and the media, as well as by patients and survivors, and in making that comment, my former colleague was simply falling in line with the 'fight cancer' mantra. But that whole cancer as a 'battleground' or other war-like metaphors that position cancer as a malicious psychopath just doesn't resonate with me. My discomfort at the comment was likely rooted in my former colleague's imposition of a metaphor for my disease that simply did not make sense.
I am supportive of metaphors or other literary techniques for imagery's sake. They certainly help to make a cancer patient's experience more relatable and familiar. But one person's understanding of their disease may not be shared with everyone, and it's unfortunate that this mantra is so commonplace. My cancer doesn't have motives, free will, or spite. I find no solace in telling it to fuck off, or claiming I'm beating/fighting/standing up to it. It's no coincidence that these euphemisms are generally the slogans of fundraising campaigns.
You know what alternative to these metaphors I appreciate? Cure cancer. Treat cancer. Prevent cancer. Put cancer into remission. Support cancer research. Help cancer patients and survivors. These words are far less anger-inducing and aggressive and place the focus where it belongs - on science, research and support. If cancer really is the 'enemy', what's the best way to beat it? By studying and understanding it as it is, a disease borne out of human blood, tissues and genes, a disease that lives within us whether it is treatable or fatal.
When I imagine my cancer, I imagine a thoughtless, mindless machine operating exactly as it has been programmed to do, the result of two important mutations (thank you, the Emperor of All Maladies). Telling it to 'fuck off' doesn't reverse the mutations, and fantasizing about punching it in the face won't put it into remission. That's what science and research is for. And until that day, I hope we (survivors, supporters, researchers, advocates, clinicians, etc.) place our focus where it is needed, on helping people diagnosed with this disease cope with their anger and frustration, rather than building an entire community that thrives on it.