After Chadwick Boseman’s death, can we please stop using fighting terms to describe life with cancer?

These warlike descriptions increase the pressure on cancer patients to act a certain way. But if we can’t stay permanently positive, many of us just feel we’re letting people down

Rebecca Tidy
Sunday 30 August 2020 14:47
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Tributes paid to Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman

It was truly heartbreaking to hear of the death of Black Panther and biopic star Chadwick Boseman. Not just because he famously played the first black superhero to get his own standalone film, but also because the 43-year old spent four years suffering with colon cancer.

As I scrolled through the communal outpouring of tweets and Instagram posts that now come to symbolise a celebrity death, I noticed that well-worn military cliches – such as fight and battle – were most commonly used to describe Boseman’s life with the disease.

While it’s great that social media has really opened up the dialogue around death and dying, I long for the day well-wishers stop the war talk around cancer.

I received 18 months of cancer treatment during my twenties. Amid the long weeks of pain, nausea and daytime TV, I’d inevitably see motivational stories about the warriors and heroes who had courageously fought the disease.

But despite the good intentions, this army-inspired language made me feel worse than ever. I’m not a fighter. In fact, I won’t even attend boxercise at the local gym – as it’s too aggressive for me. Instead, it meant that I felt guilty for feeling scared and embarrassed about my anxiety.

I was relieved to discover I’m not the only person to feel this way. Last year, a Macmillan survey showed that many patients dislike the fighting cliches used to describe cancer – with 44 per cent of respondents disempowered by the phrase “lost their battle”.

These warlike descriptions increase the pressure on cancer patients to act or feel a certain way, with many of us feeling we’re letting people down if we can’t stay permanently positive, or even worrying we don’t have what it takes to return to health.

And while I wasn’t offended by well-intended comments, they inadvertently made me feel more alone – as if none of my family and friends actually knew how I felt.

I hated being told I was brave, as I was absolutely terrified of dying, and it was all I could think about. I found the phrase “you can fight this” to be complete rubbish – that’s not how disease works. If survival was just about fighting, then we’d all survive. That’s why I prefer to use factual words to describe people with cancer, their diagnosis, treatment and the subsequent outcomes.

I spoke to Jessica French, an oncology psychotherapist from Devon. She’s worked closely with cancer patients and their families for over a decade, and she told me: “It’s important not to make assumptions about a person’s cancer experience, as statements – such as you’re so brave and you can fight this – can upset and anger people. After all, getting cancer wasn’t a choice they actively made.”

She explained that many people feel more frightened than courageous and that such statements can inadvertently minimise emotions – such as fear or anxiety. “There’s nothing wrong with not feeling brave,” she said.

I feel that as a society, we don’t discuss cancer and death nearly enough – and this means we unintentionally say some pretty awful things to sick people and bereaved relatives.

With the support of our government and NHS, there really needs to be a national conversation around these taboo topics, so we can better support cancer patients and their loved ones.

Julie Parker, the CEO of Penhaligon’s Friends – a Cornwall-based children’s bereavement charity – told me: “Talking openly and honestly about death and dying can aid our emotional wellbeing – as it encourages us to discuss our feelings, and may take away some of the fear and avoidance often associated with death.”

We can promote this dialogue nationally by holding “death cafes”, where people gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death – thus learning how to support people affected by terminal illness, and also prepare for their own.

Our government should also invest in public awareness campaigns, and better education in schools – it would ultimately mean we become better at discussing cancer, illness and death, and stop shying away from these conversations in fear of saying the wrong thing.

And when it comes to the fight talk surrounding cancer, it’s important to remember that though many people recover from the disease, others are learning to live with it instead – in many cases it may be more of a process of acceptance, rather than winning a fight.

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