Jenni Murray doesn’t have breast cancer anymore, but she would never say she had “beaten” it. During Breast Cancer Awareness month, the journalist and broadcaster is calling for us to take the boxing gloves off when it comes to cancer talk.
People who are dying from cancer shouldn’t have to hear they’re “losing the fight”
It’s now almost eight years since that terrible day in 2006 when the doctor said, ‘Yes, I’m afraid it’s cancer and the tumour is too large for a lumpectomy. It will have to be a mastectomy, as soon as possible.’
I managed a stiff upper lip until I got out of his consulting room and then screamed and sobbed like a baby. “Be brave,” everyone told me. “You’re a strong woman, you’ll fight this thing and you’ll beat it.”
I know people mean well when they try to boost the courage of a friend or family member who will have to ready herself for some pretty nasty treatments while being obsessed with the fear that, no matter how hard she tries, an army of nasty, aggressive little cells will be marching along, determined to carry out her death sentence.
But language matters and needs to be honest and true and I began to loathe the pugilistic terms that seem to surround cancer. The very word, until recent years, was barely spoken in polite company.
When I thought of the ones who didn’t make it, it became immediately apparent that such metaphors – army, march, battle, brave – were totally inappropriate and potentially harmful and hurtful. Cancer is an illness, not a military campaign and battling, fighting or positive thinking will make not a blind bit of difference.
Some of us get better and some of us don’t and dealing with those defective cancer cells depends entirely on early diagnosis, brilliant medical care, extensive research and the luck of the draw.
Some of us are simply fortunate enough to have a kinder type of cancer or one that’s easier to diagnose early because of its position in the body or one, like breast cancer, that’s benefitted from charitable funds for research..
Yet again, though, I’m reading the same old nonsense in relation to Linda Bellingham that I read (and complained about) when Ruth Picardie, Jade Goody, Dina Rabinovich and Robin Gibb died. Linda has been open about her plan to cease chemotherapy, enjoy one last Christmas with her family and then go.
Already she’s reported to be ‘losing her battle with her cancer.’ Why do we persist in using language that portrays death in terms of defeat – suggesting the ones who can’t claim victory somehow failed to have the moral fibre to fight and beat it?
None of these people are losing any battle and it’s of no comfort to them, as they face their demise, to have people like me crowing about how bravely and victoriously I battled. I didn’t. I was scared and miserable and dealt with it, faithfully following my oncologist’s instructions, and I was lucky.
So, in Breast Cancer Awareness Month, no more talk of the Big C (or, as I prefer it, plain cancer) as a war zone. It’s just a disease like any other and sometimes it kills and sometimes it doesn’t. Period.
Best known for her work on BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour, journalist and broadcaster Jenni Murray is never afraid to have an opinion.