Cancer Metaphors

“Alone on a train
Aimless in wander
An outdated map
Crumpled in my pocket
But I didn’t care where I was going
They’re all different names for the same place

The coast disappeared when the sea drowned the sun
I knew no words to share it with anyone
The boundaries of language I quietly cursed
And all the different names for the same thing”

Death Cab for Cutie, “Different Names for the Same Thing”

Cancer.  It’s been around for longer than humanity itself.  In the modern era of medicine, we finally gave it a name, and categorized it based upon it’s place of origin in the body.
It’s a word that instils fear into everyone.  This is because we know that it is a disease that effects everyone.  People from al over the world get cancer.  Every race.  Every gender.  Every social class.  Every age group.  It effects our friends and family.  People we work with.  People we go to school with.  It runs in at least the tertiary of most peoples’ lives. 
And so we develop language and metaphors to help us make sense of it all.  To help us cope.

The “War” Against Cancer


On the individual level, we say that (insert name here) is “battling cancer.”  When they die, we say, “they lost their battle with cancer.”  When they are cured, or are in remission, or sometimes any definition less than dead or on a death bed, we call them a “Cancer Warrior” or “Cancer Survivor.”

So what the hell am I?  Am I now fighting a war against cancer?  Well, the chemo drugs and surgeries are certainly weapons being used to “kill” the cancer.  But when you look a bit deeper, the analogy begins to fall flat.

If this is a war, does that mean that if one person has a more aggressive cancer than another is that person not as good of a warrior?  If one person’s body has an adverse reaction to or doesn’t respond well to treatment, is that person not as good of a warrior?  Of course not.

We can’t truly battle something that in the end is largely a matter of fortune, be it good, bad or both.  It just isn’t a fair fight.  Who survives and who dies of cancer is just as complicated as the reasons why I have metastatic colon cancer at 40, and Keith Richards will outlive all of us.

I do admit that there are times when I’ve fallen into using similar metaphors.  On my first day of treatment, I used Frank Turner’s “Love Forty Down” as my inspiration.  That one was about winning a tennis match against high odds.  No, it’s not war, but it still implies that the person playing will either “win” or “lose” in the end.

While I don’t often use the TV show Grey’s Anatomy for inspiration, a recent episode did touch me quite a bit.  Especially the ending.  While not a direct quote, it ended with language similar to this:
When we speak of cancer, why don’t we just tell the truth?  We go to doctors.  We get treatment.  Some of us live, some of us die.

I’ve processed my own metaphors through writing these blog posts.  I’ve concluded that I feel the most comfortable equating this new life with cancer as essentially this:  A forced, and unpredictable journey.

Forced.  I am trapped on the boat.  I am strapped into the seat of the roller coaster.  I cannot get off.

Unpredictable.  We live scan to scan.  On the boat, we pass many islands and landmarks.  Some give us hope of a longer journey.  Others offer warnings that the end is getting closer.  On the roller coaster, we climb peaks of hope, only to fall back down again at lightning speed.

Journey.  Some detest this term, as the very name brings up many connotations.  A journey might be something that we do for fun, or to complete a quest, or to learn.  There is an implication that there is a reward at the end.  I totally get that.

But I am under no delusions.  I know that more likely than not this journey is NOT something that I want to get to the end of.  It’s not a journey for the sake of getting to an ending.  From here on out, it’s just about living the journey.  The forced, unpredictable journey.

I don’t get a choice.  I don’t get to know what happens next.  But this journey is still better than having no miles at all.  As long as I’m on the journey, I get to see and enjoy the things that I love, despite the accompanying mental anguish.  As long as I’m on this journey, I get to appreciate life.  Going on this journey is still better than having an abrupt end at the start.  It’s not ever going to be as “fair” as not having this happen to me.  But it’s also not the worst way to leave, if I have to.

A car crash, a pulmonary embolism, a random accident, etc. would have robbed me of the precious chance to prepare and to say goodbye to those I love.

A journey means that I still have time to do things that matter.  I have time to figure out who I am before I go.  I have time to love all of the things that there are to love in this world.  For as long as I can.

I’ll end this entry with yet another song lyric (you know I am a sucker for those); and it’s one that I’ve found myself going back to repeatedly in recent weeks:

“So I go, umbrella under my arm
Into the green of the radar
How’d it get so dark in the day?
It’s just so bizarre
Is it true what we’re made of?
Why do I hide from the rain?”
Bright Eyes, “Jejune Stars”


My humanity can’t help but rail against cancer.  My humanity can’t help but rail against death.  My humanity will continue to ask questions.  But the only answers we have are the ones we choose to write into our own personal human story.

I still fear the rain.  But I have hope that I can make peace with it.  Whenever and wherever it decides to fall.

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