On Language (Attitude Part 2)

M sent me this nice New York Times Blog piece. The language critique seems spot on, though I am still waiting for a proper “Politics and the English Language” of cancer. I think the author may also have gone a little too far in the “language can never describe it” direction, since of course language always fails but we use it anyway. No, the problem is the specific ways in which cancer language fails (at least in English).

1. As Barbara Ehrenrich has pointed out, it is inaccurate. The “battle” metaphor treats cancer as something that comes from outside the person when in fact cancer is inside the cancer patient. I can’t “battle” cancer because it’s not something exterior to me, and it’s not something over which I exercise will in any particular way. This is also a problem with a lot of the people who say attitude matters so much, and with some homeopathic remedies. They wrongly attribute intention to cancer. It’s not “out to get me,” it’s an aberrant behavior in my cells.

2. The emotional language is largely projection. People who haven’t been through it imagine how they would or wouldn’t act. The “brave” metaphor is fascinating because it has so little to do with my recovery and so much to do with how people think about what they would do in my shoes. The identification is good. “You’re my friend, let me imagine myself going through what you are going through and try to empathize”; or maybe it’s just people freaking out about my mortality and their own since we’re all living under a death taboo. But bravery or stoicism has nothing to do with cancer treatments. It’s all algorithms. The patient does not do much and in most cases, the doctor doesn’t even have many decisions to make (unfortunately not my personal experience but I’ll tell you that I wish it was). Mostly, the patient is. This is not to excuse myself from aspects of my own recovery over which I do have control, some of which are attitudinal (like making sure I take walks, trying to keep the lost weight off, etc). Only to say that the actual cancer treatment happens at a level over which my status as an intending subject has very little relevance.

3. There’s a certain seriousness and sanctimony to cancer language that is also debilitating. People have asked about or commented on my sense of humor through this thing and while I’ve managed to maintain it at least in this space, there are other times it has not been so funny (and I’ll eventually write about some of those too). Still, there is something fundamentally and existentially absurd about the experience, both because cancer puts you in positions you didn’t imagine (there’s that mortality thing again) and because it doesn’t actually have a given cause or meaning. Especially in the US, but even here, I feel like there’s a way that people want the sick or disabled to be somehow responsible for their afflictions or morally elevated by them. But this is rarely the case (I do admit to playing the “cancer patient” card now and then to do stuff I probably would have done anyway when I was well). There is nothing I personally could have done to not get thyroid cancer or to save my now-MIA vocal nerve. Cancer has not arrived with a moral message of any kind, and yet the symptoms and the treatment certainly have their punishing dimensions. As far as I can tell, my suffering has no pre-given meaning except that which I make for it. So we’re in absurd and existential territory. And absurd things, like nurses backing away from me and iPhones in latex gloves, are kind of funny when you write about them in a certain way. And why not laugh at it?

4. I really, really, totally and absolutely despise the “good cancer” language. I don’t want to hear it and I have no patience for it, even though I know people mean well. There is nothing “good” about it apart from the support I’ve gotten from family and friends. In point of fact, even though thyroid cancer is not usually deadly, it could well have killed me. I am not glad or grateful for it, nor should I be. I should be thankful for my privileges in life–the people around me, a stable job with good benefits and enough money (more on money in another post) and relative comfort, health and safety. Those are privileges. Getting papillary thyroid cancer instead of anaplastic or another deadly cancer is not a privilege, and it is not something for which I owe anyone or anything gratitude. I am, I suppose, “fortunate” (in the sense of “lucky”) because I’m not about to die from cancer. But by that logic, everyone who doesn’t have my particular aggressive thyroid cancer at this moment should be even more grateful and thankful, and that renders me pathetic and pitiful in some way that I’d rather not be (not that a little pity in certain situations has been so bad–sometimes that’s the best thing available on the menu, so I take it).

5. The NYT blog ends with this:

Strangely enough, although cancer threatened my life it also exalted it, brought with it a bright and terrible clarity.

So, no, cancer isn’t a battle, a fight. It’s simply life – life raised to a higher power.

The whole “cancer changed my life” discourse is also unfortunately close to “cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me”–the kind of revelation by limit experience that is the stuff of Hollywood movies. Sure, it puts things in relief since a) the cancer patient must confront his or her own mortality and b) the treatment gives you tons of time to think, even if you’re not thinking clearly. I turn 40 this summer, I’m stepping down as chair in June (I am not chairing at the moment, of course, but still), I’m going on my first sabbatical after 11 years of professing and 5 years of heavy admin, and there are a few other changes happening as well in the household. It’s a time of life to reflect, so a few weeks of inability (or limited ability) to speak, a ton of time alone in a hospital room (once the hallucinogenic effects of the dilaudid wore off) and more time at home afterward have naturally occasioned a head start on that life-assessment process, but I don’t think I will ever say that cancer was the best thing that happened to me or that it exalted my life. What it did and does is threaten to shorten my life, which does put a few things in perspective. Maybe something much crappier is coming in 5 or 10 years and so I shouldn’t put off things that I want do anymore. But that’s the case anyway and a good way to be whether or not I have cancer, since there are countless ways in which a life can be transformed or ended in an instant. If I had a choice, I would rather not have cancer and hope that I come upon whatever realizations I come upon without it.

There are a couple things for which we cannot blame cancer language. We can’t blame cancer language for being full of clichés. Most people aren’t poets, and I think one of the hardest things for people to get their heads around is that even though their own emotions may be deeply felt and meaningful to them, the actual range of human emotional experience is not all that great. We all feel the same stuff (in differing ways and amounts, sure), and so even though my experience is mine it may not be quite as special as I’d like to imagine that it is. Of course in my actual case, I have the unfortunate distinction of being a “special” thyroid cancer patient, but be that as it may, whatever I feel about it (or felt about my hospital stay or whatever) is certainly as well expressed by cliché as by some magical poetic phrase I enjoyed dreaming up because I am good at playing with words. At the same time, we can’t blame cancer language for being inadequate to the experience, because if language is never wholly suitable to reality, than “getting the cancer language right” isn’t going to suddenly make it full or coextensive with the experience. There will be gaps between how it’s described and how it’s felt and that will always be the case, not the least because there are certain things that can or can’t be said in certain situations.

Because of an extremely limited but still-present sense of propriety, I have, for instance, spared you details on this very blog regarding the “excretion” part of getting the radioactive iodine out of my system. The details aren’t particularly gory or harrowing, but you’re welcome.

4 replies on “On Language (Attitude Part 2)”

  1. Jonathan: this is totally awesome, and explains in elegant language why it is discursively challenging to either give or receive sympathy. It is indeed a narrow range of emotions that we all feel; sympathizing with someone should be about *that person* and not about channeling other times when you yourself have felt bad, and have wanted to hear certain very specific things. Hard to do.

    Your brain is working great, clearly.

  2. my first blog comment ever, but i just had to (in the same sense i felt i had to send you the article) … you really said it jonathan, a perfect summing up of –part of– what is behind “blah blah cancer blah,” if you know what i mean?! it is hard to put into words and i could not agree more.

  3. Thanks Jonathan. You’ve stripped away the crap, as usual, and got to the heart of this daily forgotten fragility and wonder of simply being alive and attempting to be understood. Glad to hear you’re doing well.

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