More than this “battle”

It’s so easy to say something with the best of intentions, and having it come out all wrong. I get that. I’ve done it myself actually more than once. But this whole “lost their battle” thing irks me so much, that I feel compelled to write about it in my post. Just gotta do it. So I’ll say this now while the pain of loss isn’t radiating, and it hopefully it won’t be seen as an attack on those who mean well, but rather as a constructive thought:

No one “loses their battle” and no one should be reduced to having lived only that part of their lives in the paragraphs, headlines, and memorials that mark their passing. That is how I feel, very strongly. It might be an easy expression, but it is a wrong one. It neglects all the possible ways a person might have lived a beautiful, full, impacting life. And if they only get that little paragraph of remembrance, should we not be celebrating their triumphs, rather than marking them as losers?

When it comes to illness, no one loses. A person may simply get dealt a shitty hand, and despite best efforts, life will take its course. I am tired of reading about all these lost battles.

And when it comes to being remembered in the media, we are not “Cancer Bloggers, Cancer Kids, Cancer Patients, Cancer Truckers, Cancer Waitresses, Cancer Artists, Cancer Models . . .” Just because it’s an easy headline doesn’t mean it isn’t totally degrading to the beautiful legacy that person left behind.

But how do you correct people? Can I tap someone on the shoulder while they post a memorial and say, “um, excuse me, I’m about to be an annoying pain to your already heartbroken self?” No, it’s just bad timing and disrespectful.

So it’s to be said now, at least here, and by one voice to add to others who have written about this: While those left behind may feel that deep, throbbing loss of a loved one, the life lived is far more valuable than a famililar but unconsidered add-on sentiment.

And that is all I have to say about that. For now.

25 thoughts on “More than this “battle”

  1. I feel an overwhelming need to reply to this post, something I never do. As a lesbian and cancer survivor I find this blog entry troubling.

    I have lived for 53 years in a viciously homophobic society, fighting for my basic human rights. As an adult I was shocked and deeply hurt when a decade’s worth of young people chose gays to mock and disparage. “Your so gay” was, not only a hit song!!!, it was a comment I heard hourly out of the mouths of young adults who, in past generations, would have been at the forefront of the fight for equality and change.

    When people write or say “she lost her battle with cancer” they are trying to honor courage, because cancer treatments ARE hard, because you truly DO have to fight. They are trying to acknowledge the struggle, they are not offhandedly, and without a single thought, denigrating an entire group of human beings just to score a laugh. The actual analogy would be if, for the next ten years, young people would use the phrase “cancer loser” as a way to humiliate their peers.

    I don’t personally like the use of militaristic terms when discussing cancer, but language like that is commonly used to point out strength, or to describe almost any kind of human struggle.

    • Hi Meg,

      Thanks very much for your comment and putting it out there when you don’t normally comment. Reflecting upon the content, I can see how the comparison can be offensive and certainly inconsiderate – going against the very point I was trying to make. So I’ve cut it out of the post. Please accept my sincere apologies.

      I personally do think the lost battle is a terrible expression, no matter the intention behind the words. But nevertheless, you are right, many people do feel like it is honouring. However, it is nevertheless deeply limiting in my perception, and I really think it’s an expression far too overloaded with many implications.

      Mind you, when it comes to language and cancer – it’s tricky to find terms upon which everyone will agree. However, this is one I feel strong enough about to speak up upon. And in turn, I thank you for speaking up on how you feel about it as well.

  2. Hi Catherine, thought I would add my 2cents worth regarding your post. I must say – although I understand Meg’s point of view and with no disresect to her journey or any of the friends or family members I or anyone else have “lost” to this awful disease- I totally “get” what you were saying.

    I obviously have no idea which part of your post you deleted so I can’t comment on that. But I know that I don’t have to tell you or anyone else who has has first hand knowledge of cancer, that everyday is a battle – physically, spiritually and mentally. Just getting up in the morning and facing a new day often seems like a major victory in itself. Even when you are given the all clear, you never feel truely safe and I’m sure on some level you never will (I also know I dont have to tell YOU that), so you have to find the strength to carry on despite the odds, another daily mental battle.

    But I also have to say – I strongly dislike the term.

    Perhaps its because we all fight so hard not to be labled as victims, whether you are fighting against societal prejudices or your own body. Being labled and summed up at the end of your life as a victim does seem an unfitting tribute. That somehow in some way you could have fought harder, because people DO survive -ergo you didn’t? May be a far more appropriate epitaph should read, despite winning everyone of her/his battles, the war against cancer failed her/him?

    • Hi Janine,

      Yeah, there are days when just getting out of bed and facing the day can be a real struggle, I so very much agree. The battle language can be very motivating for many – including myself in the past. Generally, I prefer to leave that language behind now. I guess ‘lost his/her battle’ simply feels like the wrong way to focus on someone’s story. I think cancer can certainly be mentioned, should even be mentioned . . . just not as a point of failure.

      You make an interesting twist in your life of a person being let down by the outside efforts toward cancer. It’s too true, while research is going on – there aren’t any cures on the horizon as far as I know. Treatment is still brutal, screening is still unreliable, and many different aspects of well being are only starting to be considered. There’s a long way to go yet for those improving the situation for cancer care. Every step forward is a good step, but still such a long way to go. Thanks for your comment, Janine

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  4. I have a lot of things I go a little crazy about when it comes to cancer terminology (I don’t think saving ta-ta’s is very cute). The battle word isn’t one I have thought through too deeply, I’ll have to ponder this one.

    • Honestly, battle doesn’t bug me too much (whenever it’s not coupled with pink pom poms, I reckon it’s a personal choice of expression). It’s the “lost” that ticks me off. That focus on losing just doesn’t sit right in my brain.

  5. dear Catherine,

    I, too, have been frustrated and offended by the “battle” language so pervasive in obituaries for all the reasons that have already been spoken of. I don’t know what the answer is to this problem, but have occasionally wondered if actual obit writers are aware of the implication of these kinds of phrases. i wonder if they would be open to listen to our thoughts and feelings on these matters that could result in some media coverage. obit writers for some of the finest newspapers often assist families in composing obit notices, and perhaps would welcome our input to gently guide the bereaved to more sensitivity and better phrased announcements that would give voice to the cause of death with the same dignity, but without the warrior/battle language.

    • I think if there are official obit writers, they are definitely worth educating! But often, the obit writers are the grieving families, or someone close to them who is being helpful, and writing obits is very hard. So people fall back on what they’ve heard before or use phrases that seem like “what you’re supposed to say.” When our middle sister died (metastatic breast cancer, age 32), my oldest sister and I wrote her obituary and were very conscious of avoiding some of the wording that irks me (including “lost her battle”), but that’s because we’re writers and think about these things.

      Of course, we wrote and submitted our very carefully worded obituary, and then the newspaper websites slapped a bunch of pink ribbons all over it and actually made the words “breast cancer” within her obituary itself a link to a special breast cancer section where you could read more obits of famous people who died of breast cancer. It makes me sick just remembering. Sigh.

  6. Yes to everything you’ve said here Catherine! I think the connotations of failure make that particular phrase a terrible misappropriation of language that belongs elsewhere, and have never found the analogies of battle or struggle particularly helpful either. As a child cancer survivor with a really atypical story, I was often cited as a kind of ‘poster child’ for ‘winning’ when I was younger; I even remember at one event I was given a button that read ‘I beat cancer’. (And I remember thinking even then that the corollary of that was what? that kids who don’t survive were somehow ‘losers’?). While I never much identified with any of that, it’s only been in my adulthood, and through other difficulties I’ve faced in life, that I’ve come to reflect on just how unhelpful that discourse is for me, how foisted upon me the role felt as a kid, and how unsupportive it is for the community as a whole. Cancer (as other serious life challenges) is a f*%ing hard slog, but nobody wins or loses. Some of us just get more luck than others. Thanks for articulating what I’ve long felt.

  7. Just catching up on your blog. I agree with every word and just shared on FB (with the words “Amen. Amen. Amen”), right down to your emphasis on the “lost” part. It may never be the intention of those who pay tribute but I do feel like what is being said is that the person who died somehow failed in their efforts to keep living. It’s so much more important to talk about all the living they did and how sad and unfair that their life is over.

  8. Hi Catherine,
    This is one of my biggest cancer language pet peeves. It drives me crazy when I hear it said time and time again that so and so lost her battle to cancer. As you said, I think it’s often resorted to simply because it’s easy. Words are so important, and as you wrote so eloquently in this post, no one should be reduced to that one phrase in how they are remembered. We need to keep calling people out on this one. Thank you for doing exactly that! xx

  9. I don’t agree if it’s not a battle then those if us who made it through are not survivors. My best friend died last year from leukemia and she fought hard but she didn’t make it, explain to me how else do you say it other than she lost. I had ovarian cancer 9 years ago I won my battle. I survived. I’m sorry you are tired of hearing about the lost but those of us who won don’t want to talk about it we are guilty of surviving. We don’t want to be reminded of hell on earth and fighting for our lives.

    Its not degrading to state they lost, it’s the truth it proves they fought and didn’t give up. To say the cancer killed her is degrading like she let it

    All illness is a battle, some days just to get out of bed.

    My dad is fighting lymphoma right now as am I. We both might loose but we may win.
    What irks me is the journey statement.

    I don’t know if you are sick or not or what your experience with cancer is. I respect this is your opinion. I will leave you with this, if you have never been a cancer patient you have no idea what the battle and the war really are so don’t belittle those who have fought and won; it does depend on the hand you’ve been dealt but some of us who won wish we could give that hand to those who lost.

    • It’s totally understandable that you might not agree, Nerdy Observer, since language is a very personal thing. I can feel a great deal of frusteration from your response here, and I’m sorry you have this crap to deal with including having survived wheras others have passed away. Just about everyone commenting on this post has this crap to deal with too, so do keep that in mind.

      None of this is nice stuff, and it sparks hot emotions – much like the focus on “losing” sparks frusteration in my personal world. And I agree, we shouldn’t be belittling people who are doing their best. That’s my point with this post.

  10. Loved this! I pick my battles and this one I didn’t “pick” so I give “it” very little attention in my life. Don’t we all eventually “lose” in this thing called life? I never read 59 YO Bob lost his battle with life.

  11. yes! this!
    thank you!

    When my time comes, I want to be remembered for how I lived, not how I died. I did choose to use my cancer experience as a catalyst for change in my own life, and to help others, but that was my choice and that’s what I do while I am living. That will be the case whether my cause of death is cancer or a runaway bus.

    On a side note, when I go, regardless of how I go, not one single cancer cell inside me will survive. I’m taking them all out. There is no way cancer wins.

  12. Catherine, it was so nice to hear from you over on my blog, and it made me realize that you are yet another blogger I’ve been out of touch with, but think about. I’m trying to catch up with people this month. So delighted for you about the book!!!

    Language is so interesting, isn’t it? And it’s such a fluid thing. These days, the English language especially is constantly shifting and growing and adapting. And word usage and meanings change over time. I do hate it when people use adjectives as adverbs, but that’s another story…

    I’m not comfortable with the “win/lose” language either. It’s hard to find a context for these words that doesn’t seem inadequate. Cancer is neither a game nor a military campaign. We use the word ‘loss’ when someone we love dies. We use the word ‘win’ when we discover that someone has fallen in love with us & we’ve ‘won’ their heart. But cancer? I don’t know.

    I love what Judy Schwartz Haley said above. That’s how I feel, too.

    Now I’ve got to scroll back and find out more about your health! Hugs to you. Kathi

    • 🙂 It was so nice finding the sharkpinkpalooza picture (okay, that’s not what it is called, but that’s how it made me feel!) on a site and realizing it was your work. Thanks for visiting me back – my health (knock on wood) is doing well. Things seem to be steadily decreasing, so I hope it’s a trend that continues. In anycase, I feel well. Hugs to you too, Kathi!

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