Whenever I hear of someone being newly diagnosed with cancer my heart sinks a little as I feel a genuine sadness for them, be it a family member, friend, neighbour or even someone well known. This week it is Senator John McCain’s turn to have a life-altering diagnosis, a few weeks ago it was Olivia Newton-John’s turn with a metastatic recurrence after twenty five years. I can’t help but feel a bit more sorry for famous people as they have a public image to portray and hence they get caught up in using positive, upbeat and “fighting” language. A lot of people have commented on social media on how using military language portrays the wrong message and most importantly offends the memories of those who died as a result of cancer. I can’t help but agree because there is no battle to be fought, won or lost.
Yet I understand why they speak like that. When I was diagnosed first all those years ago I was considered very young at the time. It was very rare in my community for a young woman to be diagnosed with breast cancer and most people presumed that I would be dead before long. I must confess that I did use that language in order to find my way through those difficult first months after diagnosis. It became a shield for me and with hindsight I used those words, not only for me but also for the people around me. I also withdrew and isolated myself, similar to a wounded animal, in order to regroup and get used to life with cancer.
Cancer does not discriminate. As part of modern society, it is natural that we constantly look to our heroes and heroines for leadership but we must realise that they are fallible too and in this case we need to cut them a little slack and remember how we felt when first diagnosed. What I have noticed and especially with the onset of social media in recent years that many previously unknown “heroes” have picked up the slack and have shown leadership and become a voice for the cancer community. There is no social etiquette in how to behave after a diagnosis of cancer. The rules change in “Cancer World” and we are all vulnerable no matter what status we hold in society. After nearly eighteen years I can only just listen, sympathise and empathise.