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This Is War

A warning to the people: the good and the evil.

Battle narratives are common with diseases and death, and a rather stale overused trope with cancer. “She lost her battle”, “he fought bravely”, “she is a warrior”, “he soldiers on”, et al ad nauseam. It makes it sound as though our level of courage and fighting ability affects the overall outcome, and determines our survival.

This is war.

That’s an insult, not a compliment. To say someone fought their best at their funeral, it implies that their best still wasn’t good enough. Not when there’s other people walking around proclaiming themselves to be “cancer-free” because they “beat it”. Even hospitals get in on this slogan. I recall seeing a local billboard a few years before my diagnosis that said, “You have cancer, but cancer doesn’t have you.”

To the soldier, the civilian, the martyr, the victim.

But tell people not to use battle language for cancer, and they balk. “What now,” they cry. “What do we say?” We suggest that people stop prettying it up, being blunt and frank. They died. They died from x!disease or y!condition. And you can see in their faces oh how that offends their delicate sensibilities. It’s impolite to talk about death in such forthright terms. People dance with prose so purple you’d think Hanna-Barbara’s Grape Ape had a hand in it just to avoid saying the D-word. And I don’t mean dick.

This is war.

But at the same time, there’s an argument to be made about war as a framework. Alan Alda (Benjamin Franklin ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce) gives an argument about war and hell to William Christopher (Father John Patrick Mulcahy) in the M*A*S*H episode The General’s Practitioner (Season 5, episode 21).

It’s the moment of truth and the moment to lie.

Hawkeye commented that war wasn’t hell. War was war, and hell was hell, and of the two, war was a lot worse. Father Mulcahy asked him to explain, and confirmed that sinners went to hell. “Exactly,” Hawkeye said. “There are no innocent bystanders in Hell. War is chock full of them – little kids, cripples, old ladies. In fact, except for some of the brass, almost everybody involved is an innocent bystander.”

And the moment to live and the moment to die.

Under that definition of war, cancer fits. It’s not hell. It takes too many innocent bystanders. Including the people it kills. And those innocent bystanders don’t have a chance to really fight back. We’re not soldiers. We didn’t ask to be here. We’re innocent. But we’re caught in the crossfire of this war.

A warning to the prophet, the liar, the honest.

Instead of saying she lost the battle, if you really want to stick with the warfare analogies, say that war claimed yet another innocent victim, and left behind a broken family in its wake. We were never given a chance. A choice. We didn’t even get drafted. We were living our lives, when one day, boom. Napalmed out of nowhere.

This is war.

Especially for those of us who are de novo metastatic. Our fight is to recover from the attack, to recover a sense of normalcy, to regain as many good days as we can before we succumb to our injuries.

To the leader, the pariah, the victor, the messiah.

Don’t insult us by implying we chose this, and just weren’t good enough to hack it. That’s what the battle analogies do, saying we fought so bravely but lost. We lost? It was a situation that was rigged against us from the start. We were never going to win. It was a fixed match. The odds were never in our favor.

This is war*.

If you must use battle and warfare in your cancer dialogue, remember what Hawkeye said in M*A*S*H: war is full of innocent victims. And cancer is a war that is tearing apart innocent families and killing people who never wanted to be here. And never knew they were in the line of fire until it was too late.

* quotes from 30 Seconds to Mars’ “This Is War”


  • Susanne Kraus-Dahlgren

    Contributing Writer

    Often described as a living embodiment of a Cards Against Humanity deck, Susanne’s rants and essays and other works are a little bit Julia Sugarbaker, a little Emilie Autumn, a little bit Daenerys Targaryen, a little bit Ambassador Delenn, and entirely 100% Susanne.

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