When it comes to cancer, ‘battle’ is a bad word

Posted on Feb 18, 2016 in Cancer, Medical Rewind

Listen to what Dr. Rashid A. Buttar and Robert Scott Bell have to say about this article on the December 7th Medical Rewind Show


As we wish beloved CBC host Stuart McLean the best during his treatment for melanoma, let’s not use the language of winners and losers.

Vinyl Cafe host Stuart McLean recently announced on Facebook that he is undergoing treatment for melanoma.

Vinyl Cafe host Stuart McLean recently announced on Facebook that he is undergoing treatment for melanoma.

I have two rules about cancer.

First, I tell people I had it. I discovered my testicular cancer 25 years ago while showering and considering just how well my life was going.

Disclosing your cancer invites people into a club, one you don’t want to join but one whose benefits include solidarity, an avalanche of kindness from strangers and friends as well as crystalline moments of absolutely, 100-per-cent full-on living.

Stuart McLean, our national storyteller, used Facebook to announce he is being treated for melanoma and cancelling his Christmas tour.

His Vinyl Café, the pride of CBC Radio, is our virtual Mayberry: an imaginary, soft-edged world we need more than ever.

That Stuart has cancer means, to all who admire him, yet another person who will, at best, undergo debilitating treatment, a cure that often seems worse than the disease. It also forces us to assuage the lurking fear of a cancer that prowls our bodies, looking to tear its way into our bones, bloodstream, organs or even worse, those of our loved ones.

Because we need to personalize cancer, to take away its awful randomness, we need a word, an image, with which to deal with it.

Which brings us to rule number two.

Do not call my cancer a battle.

If you survive cancer you are invariably described as a winner, someone who won the battle. If you died, well you lost the fight.

The battle allegory is laced into every obituary or news story when someone dies from cancer and it’s absolute bull.

You don’t survive cancer because you deserve to live. You live because your cancer appeared in a noticeable area or because you remembered to book your colonoscopy or because you had a particularly alert doctor. Maybe you are in the fortunate income group whose results are invariably higher.

You survive because your life spanned developments in treatment. Terry Fox’s cancer, it has often been said, might not have resulted in the amputation of his leg today, let alone the loss of his life.

You survive because you are the right age or because of the skill of your surgeon and perhaps how many procedures he or she plowed through before your gurney was wheeled in.

You survive because of the access and the vitality of your medical community, the unwillingness of doctors to give up on people your age or the lack of overarching side effects complicating a diagnosis.

You survive because you have a fortunate family history or maybe a high tolerance for side-effects and a network of nurturers to help you through.

You may even live because you were gifted with a nature that deflected stress or the kind of family background that fostered self-worth and a positive outlook.

Occasionally you survive for inexplicable reasons. Sometimes the cancer just goes away.

But if you believe in cancer winners, you must believe in cancer losers.

How many times have you read “lost their battle to cancer” as if our magnificent friends and relatives were, in the final accounting, a little less courageous, a little less deserving of a little more life?

If we must be described as winners or losers, surely our character should be assessed through the ledger of our life and not the speed of our death.

Do I take offence at the implication, however unintentional, that Anna Clare West, Jim Kelley, Anna Gorveyn, Ellen Milton, Alice Pollock, people I loved and love, were not as magnificent in death as they were in life? You’re goddamn right I do.

If we are lucky — and here’s to hoping that Stuart McLean is one of the fortunate ones — we are reprieved. If we are not, it is for one reason and one reason only: it was our time.

Here is the truth, sometimes shattering, sometimes exalting: we are all equal in the eyes of God and fate.

Mike Ulmer is an associate and writing coach with the Toronto consulting firm of Mussio, La Grassa, Elliott, Krogh.

Article Source: TheStar