Stop Calling Me a Warrior

by Sara BlairSurvivor, Multiple MyelomaApril 20, 2022View more posts from Sara Blair

I remember the day I was diagnosed with cancer, but it is all a bit of a blur. You know how sometimes videos are made of snap shots of split-second moments—they just flash up on the screen. Maybe a picture for each minute. That is how I remember that day. Snapshots. Words and phrases but not conversations. I remember holding my partner’s hand. I remember asking myself, “What the hell is multiple myeloma?” I remember crying. I remember my doctor telling me not to Google anything and just to ask him any questions I had.

The days that followed my diagnosis are a bit more vivid. I announced my cancer on social media, the same way I announced new jobs or new travels. I have always been a sharer. I guess it’s the writer in me. So, I told the world about my diagnosis, and messages from loved ones, friends, and strangers came pouring in.

“You are so strong!”

“You got this!”

“You are going to fight this!”

“You are going to beat this!”

“You are a warrior!”

“You are so brave!”

Why do we do this to cancer patients? Why do we inundate them with war metaphors and images of fights and strength? Our go-to rhetoric for cancer is to liken cancer treatment to a battle. To tell them that the way they will”‘beat” this thing through their personal strength and bravery.

If you don’t have cancer, and I truly hope you do not, you might be thinking to yourself, “What’s the problem? These words should be motivating, shouldn’t they? You want them to feel strong, like they can fight it and win the ‘battle’.” 

The problem is that it isn’t a battle. This is not a fair fight in the least.

Cancer patients often have very little control of how this so-called “battle” turns out. Whether it is because they have no medical coverage to pay for the treatment at all, or the treatment just doesn’t work, or maybe the cancer has just spread too much that there was never really any hope to begin with. No amount of “fighting” or positive thinking can minimize the cancer cells in your body. That is simply not how it works.

I hate being called strong or brave. Without fail, over the last year or so, whenever I post on my social media about something in relation to my cancer, someone tells me how strong or brave I am. At first, I wasn’t sure why this bothered me so much. Shouldn’t I want to be called strong and brave? But I guess the problem is that I just don’t understand what makes me brave. I didn’t have a choice when I was diagnosed with cancer. I didn’t want to be a part of this thing that everyone keeps referring to as a “battle.” I technically could have chosen not to go through with treatment, but to me it is not bravery to choose to go to chemotherapy, or have surgery or a stem cell transplant. I am desperate but hopeful. I trust my doctors. I trust science. I trust medicine. I am not just going to sit back and let cancer take me. But I also didn’t do anything to “fight it” either.

If, and when, the time comes that this cancer eventually takes me, I’d rather not look at it as giving up or losing a battle I didn’t sign up for. I am only 35, and I am living with a cancer that is usually diagnosed in men over sixty. I am fortunate that my chemotherapy kicked cancer’s ass, while I sat in my reclining chair in the chemo center and continued to teach my classes virtually.

Don’t get me wrong, I would love to take the credit for being in remission. I suppose it’s a nice sentiment to think that something inside me is strong enough to have control over the outcome of my treatment. But the reality is, chemotherapy did what it was supposed to do. My stem cell transplant so far was a success. My 35-year-old body could handle the side effects and the recovery because aside from cancer, I am actually pretty damn healthy. This so-called battle was made easier because of my age, early detection, and my doctor’s ability to get me into treatment within days of diagnosis.

People keep mentioning that I am “winning the battle” but imagine “losing the battle”? There is nothing worse than thinking that there was something more you could’ve done. Believing you could’ve “fought harder”—as if that is a thing. As if you have enough control over how treatments work, and how your body handles it all.

I promised myself I wouldn’t get sucked into these ideas. I am not someone who has ever been a fan of toxic positivity, as I mentioned I don’t believe you can positively think your way to good health. But I do think your mental and emotional health can affect your physical health. I know that it is important to stay in a good headspace through treatment and stay hopeful because that will motivate you to keep exercising, eating healthy, etc. to help with your physical health. But sometimes that is just not good enough, and people die anyway.

“They lost their battle to cancer.”

I remember reading through many opinions on this idea of “losing a battle” from other cancer patients over the last year. There is an Instagram account (@thecancerpatient) that has posted many memes or discussions on this topic through their posts and stories. One man talked about how his wife died and she made him promise to say she’d been “murdered by cancer.” Norm Macdonald recently passed away from cancer, and he was quoted saying, “I’m pretty sure that if you die, the cancer dies too. That’s not a loss. That’s a draw.” I have told my partner that when I go, he better say something equally as amazing.

I had never really thought about all this until I was diagnosed. I am sure I have called people strong in the past or talked about cancer in relation to a battle, and never thought about it beyond that. But when I was diagnosed, it was as if it flipped a switch in my linguistically intrigued mind, and I couldn’t help but start to analyze and pick apart the cancer rhetoric.

Here I was, thinking the worst thing that would happen, in terms of the things people say, would be those trying to sell me their pyramid scheme products that they claim cures cancer, or people giving me unsolicited advice about how to cure my cancer—“Did you know that chlorine in your water every day can shrink a tumor?” Apparently, it is better than chemotherapy. And— “Essential oils will obviously help you, because they cure everything there is to cure.”

But I digress—the cancer rhetoric is really the thing that irks me. I find myself over-analyzing every word and wondering where it all came from. Every new cancer friend I meet, I question them on their thoughts about this language. I have noticed a pattern—many of the AYA cancer patients I talk to feel the same way as I do. We are sick of the war metaphors and don’t use them to discuss our own treatment or cancer. But since I have a cancer that is found mostly in older people, I have noticed that in my multiple myeloma online communities, they love to call themselves warriors. I see this word in particular come up over and over again, and much more often in the older communities rather than the younger ones.

I have spent a year cringing every time I get a message of support with the words “strong,” “brave,” “battle,” or “fight,” in it. I do not correct people, because I know people mean well. But I feel like it needs to be talked about more often.

I have no trouble setting boundaries for things that actually do damage to my own mental health, such as when I wrote on my social media that I would appreciate people not commenting on my appearance while I was going through treatment. So many people either lose weight or gain weight. Some people lose their hair, some don’t. I didn’t want to hear anything about it, whichever way any of it went. But most people assume you want to be told you look good, even when you know you don’t. I did not. Boundaries need to be set. And I set those.

But when it comes to these war metaphors, I find it harder to set that boundary. The reality is that the language isn’t hurting me right now. It isn’t necessarily affecting me in a profound way. I roll my eyes—hell, most of the time I laugh when I see it now. My best friends and I often joke about how “strong and brave” I am for anything and everything. But maybe that is only because I am winning the battle. What happens when that is no longer the case?

I guess all I am really trying to say is that I am not strong. I am not brave. I am not fighting in any battle. I am not a warrior. I am just surviving. And that is okay.

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8 Comments

  • Lorna Day says:

    Yes! Thank you for writing this. Sometimes us humans don’t want to see a young cancer patient being human. Sometimes the bravest thing we can do is grieve the reality, and allow hope to emerge out of that grief.

  • Matt Frakes says:

    Sara – Thank you for writing this. It is so important for people to understand. Before going through cancer myself, I was that person that said the exact things you reference above. One of the biggest learning I took from cancer is how little strength, battles and bravery really are to it all. The only brave thing I accomplished was actually accepting death and, by extension, outlining what it meant for my life moving forward.

  • This hits home for me like so hard right now. Thank you for so eloquently putting into words what I was thinking but couldn’t quite explain or portray to others in my support system who have never been diagnosed with cancer. Things are just soooo different for young adults versus the older generation. On many things, not just cancer, but ESPECIALLY cancer. And when I say cancer, I mean all the other “life things” that come with it – and specifically this terminology topic! As I was starting up my cancer box business with the young adult in mind, this was exactly what I wanted to avoid including. Not just the outdated graphics, but more specifically this “warrior” and “battle” speak. I had trouble wording it, so I didn’t really go into much explanation or detail, but your writing def hits the target! Thanks so much for sharing! With your permission, I’d love to link back to this article or your social media account. (And obvi keep spreading the word about E&T, love you guys and all that you do!!). Regardless, this is def what I needed to read this morning. Thanks again so much for sharing.

    1. Sara says:

      Nancy,

      Thank you so much for your comment and for reading! Would love for you to share the article (and my social media is @iamnottheword on Instagram and Twitter). I think this needs to be discussed more!

      Sara

  • Julie says:

    I could not appreciate this any more…
    I have felt this way for years but you articulated it beautifully!
    Thank you!

  • Tim Ferguson says:

    I understand what you are saying. You articulate it very well. I respectfully disagree. I am a warrior. This is a fight for me every single day. I have to fight fatigue. I have to fight the wear and tear of 53 consecutive cycles of chemotherapy. I have to fight through the blah and smile to my kid so her world feels a little safer…. even if it really isn’t. I have to fight the perceptions that society places on me as a cancer patient and I have to fight to keep the right mindset while this cancer waged war on my body. Strong. Resilient. Fighter. Warrior. All of them apply at one point or another just as well as weak, struggling and succumb will also apply at one point or another. Embrace both sides of this because one way or another you will face it. Good luck.

  • Claudette Spencer-Nurse says:

    Thank you for sharing. I have a friend who has cancer and is currently getting treatment. This will help me to know how to relate to her by simply asking her.

  • Maureen Bumba says:

    Thank you for this telling. We seem to set each other up with that attitude. My sister gave me a mirror sticker that said “F*ck off cancer, you picked the wrong b*tch”. So that I could fight the good fight of course. One day in the middle of treatment with no hair and diarrhea that made me need diapers— I was sitting on the floor of my bathroom trying to open Lomotil and the neuropathy in my hands wouldn’t let me. So I cried and cried and was a “failure” for not being brave. When I got to my knees, I took a nail file to that damn sticker and scratched it into oblivion. Cancer wasn’t a game or a fight or a battle because that means it’s my fault when things don’t go well— and that is insanity. Cancer s*cks all by itself. Let’s not give it nobility

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