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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Stop using warfare metaphors for the sick

Judith Martin United Feature Syndicate

An unpleasant side effect of cancer is that whoever gets it will be characterized thereafter as a victim and a loser. And that, Miss Manners has observed, is on the part of well-wishers.

They speak of “cancer victims.” Even in a victim-oriented culture, this suggests having been bested by a bully, with its hint that only a wimp would allow this to happen. Therefore the more popular metaphor is that of warfare. People with cancer are said to be “fighting” or, more often, “battling” the disease. It sounds more dignified that they are not taking this lying down.

On their part, they have come up with “cancer survivor” to indicate a refusal to succumb, or perhaps just to remind their too-quick sympathizers that they are alive. This carries an air of athletic triumph, rather like someone who had been thought lost while mountain climbing and is discovered alive at the peak.

All the same, everyone eventually dies of something. Especially if it is cancer, but increasingly in regard to other causes, you may be sure that the mourners will sum it up by saying, “She lost her battle against cancer,” although she will be said to have “fought valiantly.” It will be the first and most prominent part of memorial tributes and reminiscences. Whatever is said about the person’s pre-cancerous or extra-cancerous life takes second place.

Miss Manners wonders what is going on here. The idea seems to be to evoke the heroism of war, but what principle or population did anyone serve or save by being sick? And what of the fact that they were not volunteers but drafted against their will and hopes? It strikes her as rude to give that much emphasis to an accident of fate when identifying a person or summing up a lifetime. Being sick is neither a character trait nor an occupation.

People with the best intentions in the world continue to speak of those they care about as battling cancer and, when it comes to that, losing. Furthermore, the well-wishers throw themselves into the wartime spirit. They make nuisances of themselves telling wartime hero stories about people who overcame the disease, proposing tactics such as other treatments and urging the warriors on to fight harder.

But these are not warriors and disease is not a fight, much less a fair fight. Sick people do not need the implication that better strategizing and fighting harder would lead to victory. What they need is the recognition, expressed in countless different ways, that they are still the same individuals they were before they got sick.

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