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Stephanie Sliekers Headshot

Your Cancer Metaphors Don't Comfort Me

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People react strangely to news of a cancer diagnosis. One of the strangest reactions I experienced by far was that of a former colleague, who surprised me with his anger. His niece, he told me, a 15-year-old girl about to start a new year at high school, had also just been diagnosed. She was undergoing invasive surgeries and gruelling chemotherapy treatment. He exclaimed to me with fervor: "If cancer were a person, I'd punch it in the face!"

His outburst caught me off guard. I had to suppress the giggle caught in my throat. Regaining my composure, I fell in line. Cancer is an asshole! I forced myself to think. But, I couldn't. I knew I should feel grateful for and appreciative of this man, who was so willing to take up arms to defend helpless victims like me, but I couldn't help chuckling at the futility of his remark. It was macho and frankly, pathetic. I walked away from the conversation confused, unsettled... and a little amused.

My reaction still disturbs me. Cancer is constantly personified by fundraisers and the media, as well as by patients and survivors. In making that comment, my former colleague was adopting the commonly accepted 'fight cancer' mantra. But that whole cancer as a battleground or other war-like metaphors that liken cancer to a malicious psychopath just don't resonate with me. My discomfort at the comment was likely rooted in my former colleague's imposition of a metaphor for my disease.

Don't get me wrong, metaphors and other literary techniques are critical to conveying a shared understanding of a patient's experience. But one person's understanding of his or her disease may not be shared with everyone else. It's unfortunate that the metaphor is so commonplace because it misleads people like my colleague, who have perfectly good intentions, into thinking they're being supportive. My cancer doesn't have motives, free will, or spite. I find no solace in telling it to fuck off, or claiming I'm beating/fighting/standing up to it. It's no coincidence that these metaphors are generally the slogans of fundraising campaigns.

You know what alternative to these metaphors I appreciate? Cure. Treat. Prevent. Support. Help. These words are less anger-inducing and aggressive and place the focus where it belongs -- on science, research, healthcare and patient supports. If cancer really is the 'enemy', what's the best way to beat it? By studying and understanding it as it is, a disease borne out of human blood, tissues and genes, a disease that lives within us whether it is treatable or fatal.

When I imagine my cancer, I imagine a thoughtless, mindless machine operating exactly as it has been programmed to do, the result of two important mutations (thank you, The Emperor of All Maladies). Telling it to fuck off doesn't reverse the mutation, and fantasizing about punching it in the face won't put it into remission. That's what science and research is for. And until the day cancer is cured, I hope we (survivors, supporters, researchers, advocates, clinicians, etc.) place our focus where it is needed, on helping people diagnosed with this disease cope with their anger and frustration, rather than building an entire community that thrives on it.