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The Problem with Cancer and the Warrior Ethic

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the controversial, yet commonly held, notion that a cancer diagnosis is a war or a battle that must be won. Doesn’t this philosophy place the burden almost entirely on us patients? If we die or if our cancer ultimately recurs it’s because we didn’t think positively enough or we weren’t strong enough to will it away. I know of plenty of women who’ve succumbed to ovarian cancer and they were among the bravest and most resolute people on Earth. In my opinion, a person’s cancer outcome will depend almost exclusively on medical science. Of course, there are always certain unknown factors or variables—what we sometimes refer to as chance. I’ve learned to face the reality that much of what occurs in terms of my cancer is beyond my individual control, no matter how strong or determined I try to be.

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When I was first diagnosed, an iconic image associated with cancer kept going through my mind. I closed my eyes and I could see one of Canada’s most legendary and revered figures, Marathon of Hope runner Terry Fox. I can vividly remember Fox from the photographs and TV clips of my early adolescent years. He continues to represent a certain type of heroism to me, and his legacy offers proof that one person can change the world in the face of tremendous adversity. Nevertheless, it was beyond the young Fox’s control, that his cancer returned and he was forced to stop his Marathon of Hope. In the end, he received multiple chemotherapy treatments and even experimental interferon treatments; in spite of everything, the disease continued to spread. Terry Fox died on June 28, 1981, with his family by his side. My point is that even the heroes among us don’t have it within their power to simply will cancer away.

Well-known screenwriter and producer Josh Friedman was recently diagnosed with kidney cancer, he writes eloquently about the warrior mentality in a personal essay he authored for Time magazine. “Cancer doesn’t give a damn how tough you are,” he argues. “Cancer doesn’t care if you stared down the North Koreans like John McCain, or won the Tour De France like Lance Armstrong.”

Friedman is adamant that patients shouldn’t feel a burden to be brave or to be victorious in some kind of ongoing battle with their disease. “You don’t battle cancer. You don’t fight it. If cancer wants you it sneaks into your room at night and just takes you. It doesn’t care if you’re John Wayne or John McCain.”

“The tough guy narrative is seductive,”  Friedman reminds his readers. “It suggests we have control over our fate, that we can will cancer away. These are lies we tell ourselves. And for some patients that’s helpful. It gets them through the day. For them, it’s a useful tool. But courageousness is a standard that no sick person should feel like they have to meet.”

One popular theory that makes me especially angry is one that links specific personality types to an increased risk of getting cancer. “The Type C Connection: The Behavioral Links to Cancer and Your Health,” argues that the personality traits of some people make them more prone to cancer. Typically, “Type C” individuals are the antithesis of warriors: They are unassertive people-pleasers who repress their emotions.

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Modern researchers have largely debunked the idea that negative emotions heighten an individual’s susceptibility to developing cancer, or that maintaining a positive outlook can stave off cancer’s return or delay its progression. I agree with the majority of oncologists and cancer researchers who argue that there is no evidence to support the idea that personality can influence the growth of malignant cells. There is no cancer for which attitude can halt the progression of disease. A handful of studies have found that women who are anxious or depressed are more likely to suffer recurrences of breast cancer and die from the condition. However, it’s obviously true, and understandable, that dying women are more likely to be anxious and depressed.

A recent article in the Washington Post bore the straightforward headline: “It doesn’t take a warrior to beat cancer. It takes a treatment that works.” The author, Steven Petrow, discusses his opinion that people shouldn’t think that their cancer outcome is primarily in their hands. If someone’s cancer progresses, it’s a failure of the medical treatments that are currently available, plain and simple.

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