Why it might be time to put the cancer 'fight' metaphor to rest once and for all

Korin Miller
Yahoo Lifestyle

Meghan McCain has been very vocal in her support for her father, Senator John McCain, who is currently undergoing treatment for brain cancer.

Just last week, McCain posted a photo of herself and her father on Instagram with this message: “My Mother calls me ‘John McCain in a dress’—my relationship with my father has always been magic—we are fiercely and protectively forever on each other’s team. Love with your complete and whole heart in this life. We keep fighting because we are all McCains, we are a family of a long lineage of Vikings—fighting is what we have always done, and what we will always do.”

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McCain uses the word “fight” several times in talking about her father, but it’s a term many in the cancer community take issue with. In a new report titled “Missed Opportunities,” the U.K. charity Macmillan Cancer Support says that framing cancer as a “fight” or “battle” can make patients feel guilty or as if they have failed or lost if their condition worsens.

After the report went public, people flooded Twitter with their own thoughts on this, including actor Rob Delaney, who recently lost his young son, Henry:

Clearly, everyone approaches a cancer diagnosis differently, and a variety of preferred terminology comes with that. (Shannen Doherty, whose breast cancer is now in remission, prefers the term “cancer slayer,” for example.) But this issue with using terms like “fight” and “battle” in relation to cancer isn’t new, Marlon Saria, PhD, RN, advanced practice nurse researcher at the John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

“’Fight’ and ‘battle’ means that you can either win or lose,” he says, adding that “journey” and “survivor” can also be controversial. “If you think about it, who are the other survivors that we talk about other than cancer survivors?” Saria says. “You don’t talk about someone being a diabetes survivor or a stroke survivor.”

It’s often patients in palliative care who struggle with this terminology the most, Martha Aschenbrenner, licensed professional counselor with the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “The idea of a battle always has a sense of personal responsibility and accountability,” she points out. “For a lot of people, they feel like it puts the onus on them to survive their cancer.”

When it comes to helping people figure out how to mentally grapple with a cancer diagnosis, Aschenbrenner says she often asks the patient to define the terminology they’re comfortable with using. “I ask people, ‘What does this feel like to you?’” she says. A lot depends on a person’s stage of life and their generational perspective. Those who are older tend to look at it as a battle, while younger people typically view cancer as something they have to learn to live with, Aschenbrenner says.

If you know someone who has a cancer diagnosis, it may be helpful to listen to them and see how they refer to their cancer before using certain terms like “fight” and “battle.” But, of course, support is the most important thing. If someone you love is dealing with cancer, it’s important for you to be there and show your support, even if you happen to slip and use terminology that may be controversial, Saria says. Ultimately, being present matters much more.

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