There's this thing we tend to do when we hear the awful news that people we know or admire have cancer or other dire diagnoses. We transform them into courageous warriors, ready to battle and conquer the forces of the evil disease. They're suddenly heroes. Fighters. It can feel odd to them because just a bit ago, they were everyday humans, sometimes brave, sometimes scared shitless, trying to navigate the twists and turns of life like everybody else.
Upon learning the news that US senator John McCain has an aggressive type of brain cancer, the politician was sent a flood of well wishes from past and present American leaders, all sounding a bit like an infantry soldier pep talk. Barack Obama tweeted, "John McCain is an American hero & one of the bravest fighters I've ever known. Cancer doesn't know what it's up against. Give it hell, John." In a White House release, President Donald Trump stated, "Senator John McCain has always been a fighter." Mike Pence wrote, "Cancer picked on the wrong guy. John McCain is a fighter, and he'll win this fight too." Gabrielle Giffords gave the rallying cry, "You're tough! You can beat this. Fight, fight, fight!"
In trying times is more important than ever to consider the feelings of those around you. We are all in our own bubble, with our own unique perspective on the world, and it is crucial for our personal development to understand how other people experience the world.
In a way, the surge of support felt unifying, at least for this moment in this instance — John, the world is behind you and sends you strength. But for some cancer patients and their families, the war metaphors felt problematic, misplaced. In an opinion piece for The Independent, Anthony Wilson took issue with describing cancer as a "battle," believing this type of language hands responsibility for recovery to the patient and perpetuates a myth that only those who "fight" survive it. If a person dies, does that then mean he "lost"? Also, it gives the patient an added mental toll on top of the physical one he has zero control over.
"I can say after a day on a chemotherapy drip, you feel the battle is being done to you, not that you are choosing to fight in one yourself," Wilson shared on his blog.
As Josh Friedman wrote in a piece for Time, "Toughness and courage are staples of our cultural business. But these are not how we survive cancer. We survive cancer through luck, science, early detection and real health insurance."
Kelsey Crowe, an empathy scholar and founder of the organisation Help Each Other Out, says we need to find other ways to talk about late-stage cancer diagnoses and other illnesses — and yes, we should be talking about it. Crowe is the co-author of the book There Is No Good Card For This: What To Say And Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, And Unfair To People You Love. Here's what she believes would be helpful to say when you just don't have the right words.
'I'm Sorry This Happened to You'
Crowe says "I'm sorry this happened to you" is a more impactful statement than "I'm sorry." She explains, "When you say, simply, 'I'm sorry,' it can feel like you're saying, 'I'm sorry about your whole life.' It can feel a little pitying. But by rooting it in, 'I'm so sorry this particular thing happened to you,' you're not presuming to know how a person's feeling about it, and you're not suggesting that you feel sorry for their entire existence."
Those who are going through something really horrible may believe that people want to avoid them, as if they're contagious. When you say you're sorry about this one tragedy, it disconnects their identity from the tragedy, and they're free to be themselves again. The person might say, "Thank you, it sucks," and then talk to you about it.
'How Are You Doing Today?'
In the book, Crowe and her co-author Emily McDowell write that people often operate under this assumption that they need to find the exact right words, but really, it's all about listening.
Crowe says, "You can say, 'I heard the news. This must be tough. How are you doing today?' and then let the person tell you if it's tough or not."
Some People Do Want to Be 'Fighters'
While many don't appreciate the word "fight," some do, Crowe tells me. We should pay attention to the language they use. "Sometimes, people do need a sense of resolve, something to bolster them to get out of bed and that metaphor of fight can do that," she says. "Even Quakers who are nonviolent Pacifists have a line in sports events and it goes, 'Fight! Fight! Inner light! Kill, Quakers, kill!' That can mobilize people. It's a rallying call to get through another day. So I wouldn't give up on that language if the person is still using it."
She adds that if you're in regular conversation with the person, you can address your language around the illness. "You can easily ask how somebody wants to talk about it," she says. "You can say, 'It seems like some people don't like the word 'fight.' What word would you like me to use?' You can always ask."