Sufferers, losers, and survivors

battle with cancer

There’s a language which appears to have grown up around cancer and cancer patients and cancer therapies. I think I’m considered a “sufferer,” although I’m supposed to be “battling cancer” also. Biff! Bam! Ow!

Those who have managed to overcome their cancers are “survivors,” and I approve of this term. Cancer, as one of my doctors told me the other week, usually comes to people as a terrifying and sudden bolt from the blue. “One of my patients,” she said, “said it was like mowing your lawn on a sunny day, and then suddenly a big truck comes screaming into your yard and crashes into you.” Something like that you can only survive; there’s no other word for it.

Here’s the expression I hate, though: “he/she lost the battle to cancer.”

Sorry, kids. My mother and father did not “lose their battles,” nor did my sisters, nor my niece, nor my aunts and uncles. They sickened and died, as does everyone sooner or later. Most of them were diagnosed very late in the course of their illnesses, so they didn’t have much chance to undergo successful treatment.

Much is made of “positive attitude,” and how it improves your odds. Certainly, psychologically, I see the point. It’s impossible, as one of my survivor friends told me not long ago, to think about cancer all the time; it makes you crazy and gloomy. You need to cheer yourself, and reassure yourself that not everything ends in tragedy. As yet another doctor said a few weeks ago: “If you look at prognosis statistics – and you probably already have – don’t let them worry you too much. You’ll either be one of the people who live, or one of the others. There’s no way of telling.”

My mother was a terrible patient, but she lived seven years after her diagnosis at age seventy-two. Her cancer never quite finished with her; she underwent repeated bouts of chemotherapy over the years, and each was a little harder for her to deal with; finally, in her seventy-ninth year, it was just too much for her. She began to decline seriously in September, and by November she was gone. Along the way, she exhibited every behavior you can imagine: self-pity, fear, anger, selfishness, mean-spiritness. Also kindness. Also a strange late-autumn sweetness.

My sister Susan, diagnosed in her forty-sixth year, was an angel. She suffered miserably with her cancer, but I never saw or heard her angry or upset. She spent time picking out her own coffin and the clothes and jewelry she’d be wearing at her own funeral. She was a wonderful person, and I kick myself that I didn’t see more of her and call her more often during her last few years.

My sister Darlene: I don’t know. We weren’t close. But I think she made great use of her last years: she underwent a clinical trial, and she did community work right up until the very end. She was always tough, and a good citizen, and I salute her.

My poor niece, who died only a few years ago in her forties, was surrounded by her family, and comforted by her faith.

None of them were “losers.” They sickened and died, but they were by no means “losers.”

So don’t speak to me of the “battle against cancer.” Cancer’s not an ideology or a bad guy or a rebel army. It’s a disease, that’s all.

We’re all terminal, after all. None of us is coming out of this alive.

All that really matters is how we use the time we’ve been given, cancer or no cancer.

About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to

9 Responses to Sufferers, losers, and survivors

  1. dhforbes2 says:

    Beautifully stated! Bravo, my friend! Deal with the medical ‘stuff’ as it comes and live every day.

  2. peggy mofford cobb says:

    I am enjoying reading your posts..but am very careful about comments anymore!…But here I am, because I love that you “get” the bigger picture. We are ALL time stamped and dated. Its a journey! How we conduct ourselves through out this journey speaks of who we are. We ALL have shame, guilt.. We ALL love and have family at some point.. we ALL get sick off and on at some point.. And, at some point, we ALL die. Each of us are responsible for making this journey the best possible. We love, we live, grow to realize that “stuff is just stuff” ..we whine, have meltdowns, and hopefully, learn to love ourselves and tolerate others.. This is life.!

    • Thanks for getting what I was trying to say. One of my good friends was a little miffed with me; she thought I was saying that I wasn’t going to “fight” my disease. I tried to explain to her that there are other (and better) metaphors for this situation, and – as you said, very aptly – we’re all time-stamped.

  3. It strikes me that it’s a little like going into battle, in that you know it’s possible you or your buddy or the guy down the field a ways could get shot and killed. But you go in believing you won’t be that one. Or at least fatalistically: I gotta go in, let’s hope I come out. Everyone who loves you is wrapping you with golden fairy angel dust; so I’m pretty sure you’re one of the ones surviving.

    • My point in writing today – though I obviously wasn’t clear – was that warfare/battle is not the only applicable metaphor. Warfare/battle has some obvious similarities, but (as I tried to point out) you end up with winners and losers. How about another metaphor? How about trial/initiation? How about the creation of a work of art?

      Warfare as a metaphor is entirely overdone, from the “War on Poverty” to the “War on Terrorism.” We need new ideas.

  4. starproms says:

    One day at a time Loren 🙂 One day at a time. Some of us have many years, others just a few. None of us knows for sure, do we. Let’s change the mind set and think. I have today, let me enjoy every minute and not worry about tomorrow. I got up this morning to a beautiful sunrise. The whole sky turned a deep red and the trees on the horizon were black silhouettes against it. It was just so beautiful. Now it has gone and a grey day has followed, but I can still see the sunrise if I try. Try today to see the sunrises in your life 🙂 x

    • Trying every day to see the best in everything. It’s very lovely here too right now; I’ve been walking as much as I can, because it will be cold soon, and I’ll probably be too tired to walk much.

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