On not beating cancer

'Cancer Dance', by Chris JohnstonFinally, this morning, enough — one too many journalistic references to someone's 'beating' cancer, as if cancer was an opponent to be defeated, an enemy to be conquered, a battle in which courage often wins the day.

It's a lie. Cancer is to be endured, that's all. The best you can hope for is to fend it off, like a savage dog, but cancer isn't defeated, it only retreats, is held at bay, retires, bides its time, changes form, regroups.

It may well be that the boy who survives an early cancer lives a long and lovely life, without ever enduring that species of illness again, but the snarl of it never leaves his heart, and you'll never hear that boy say he defeated the dark force in his bones.

Use real words. Real words matter. False words are lies. Lies sooner or later are crimes against the body or the soul. I know men, women, and children who have cancer, had cancer, died from cancer, lived after their cancer retreated, and not one of them ever used military or sporting metaphors that I remember.

All of them spoke of endurance, survival, the mad insistence of hope, the irrepressibility of grace, the love and affection and laughter and holy hands of their families and friends and churches and clans and tribes. All of them were utterly lacking in any sort of cockiness or arrogance. All of them developed a worn, ashen look born of pain and patience. And all of them spoke not of winning but of waiting.

There is a great and awful lesson there, something that speaks powerfully of human character and possibility. For all that we speak, as a culture and a people, of victory and defeat, of good and evil, of hero and coward, it is none of it quite true. The truth is that the greatest victory is to endure with grace and humour, to stay in the game, to achieve humility.

I know a boy with brain cancer. He's 16 years old. He isn't battling his cancer. It's not something to defeat. He is enduring it with the most energy and creativity and patience he can muster.

He says the first year he had cancer was awful because of the fear and vomiting and surgery and radiation and chemotherapy and utter exhaustion. But he says that first year was also wonderful, because he learned to savour every moment of his days, and because he met amazing people he would never have met, and because his family and friends rallied behind him with ferocious relentless humor, and because he learned that he was a deeper and stronger and more inventive and more patient soul than he had ever imagined.

He also learned about fear, he says, because he was terrified and remains so, but he learned that he can sometimes channel his fear and turn it into the energy he needs to raise money for cancer research. Since he was diagnosed with cancer he has helped raise nearly $100,000, which is a remarkable sentence.

I met a tiny frail nun once, in Australia, while walking along a harbour, and we got to talking, and she said no one defeats cancer, cancer is a dance partner you don't want and don't like, but you have to dance, and either you die or the cancer fades back into the darkness at the other end of the ballroom.

I never forgot what she said, and think she is right, and the words we use about cancers and wars matter more than we know.

Maybe if we celebrate grace under duress rather than the illusion of total victory we will be less surprised and more prepared when illness and evil lurch into our lives, as they always will; and maybe we will be a braver and better people if we know we cannot obliterate such things, but only wield oceans of humor and patience and creativity against them. We have an untold supply of those extraordinary weapons, don't you think?

Brian DoyleBrian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland. He is the author of nine books of essays and poems, most recently Thirsty for the Joy: Australian & American Voices.

Topic tags: brian doyle, cancer, language



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Existing comments

Beautiful words with such a difficult truth within them.
Bronwyn | 03 February 2009

Thank you. Thank you for words to help us cope with friends living with cancer . . and when words fail, there's always a hug.
glen avard | 04 February 2009

As a male in his 60s just emerging from a round of the struggling dance that is cancer, these words are both true and helpful - thanks, Brian. Love the utterly true phrase 'holy hands'!
When people said they would pray for me (and it was wonderful that they did and do), I asked that they they would pray for me to have patience. I am not sure that we are every 'healed' of cancer or similar things, and we will all die - yet not as 'defeated' by death (or life!), but graced in Christ to be received into the full wholeness of the new creation.
Charles Sherlock | 04 February 2009

Humour? Patience? Creativity? Doyle may have known people with cancer, but he hasn't, clearly, lived through it with someone so close to him that he died too when he/she died. He hasn't watched ravages of brain and body as they turn a vital, witty, loving person into a complete stranger, who at times seems to hate you. What price then humour, patience, creativity?

marie | 04 February 2009

ditto to the well expressed content, re language and attitudes for the person diagnosed and his friends.
Refer to 612 abc 4qr interview, which Richard Fydler aired late 2008 - of a brain surgeon diagnosed with severe brain cancer who used to be the operating surgeon on RPA TV show. His [re]action once he was able, was to launch a 'whole' wellness centre involving both mainstream and alternative therapy; he chose, [having no other option than to lay down and die] with fellow brain surgeons to help and support him 'to go for broke' and have surgery.. he 'lives with the results of his cancer' and did not follow his initial kneejerk reactions re wife kids and family home..
f y i - try to read, also, Barry Thomson, Q'lander's book,found on shelf at local naturopath .. a compilation of his melanoma story, 'psa'count is cancer free, and his findings. I was unaware melanoma is untreatable by chemo or radiation therapy. Thomson assembles the pith of numerous studies, treatments and theories in one readable place - 'Join us in our Escape from Cancer Jail - Death Row]..title is somewhat 'in the face' of Cancer being a death sentence.. definitely something in that theory about ridding body of parasites, and liver fluke, and then the eggs released as the adult dies from a compound easily obtainable.. Particularly, the presence of isopropyl alcohol found [used in make-up and cleaning products] in autopsied livers of those whose bodies and minds succombed - some like the aboriginal bone -pointee e.g. when a Doctor announces the likelihood of survival or living days or months left...He deals with the question - Why do some overcome the various types of cancers and [do what is necessary] to maintain a cancer free body? .. I note also a recent radio news item that dentists are convinced and say mouthwash containing alcohol should be removed from shelves .. urge you to read the readable 'book'. I have no connection with the man.
Mary Ebert | 04 February 2009

Thank you Brian for such true words. The difficulty in our culture is that if you don't 'fight the good fight' then you are seen as a failure of some sort. If you just 'dance' with the cancer and don't battle it, then that is not good enough. Real words and real anger would be more truthful.
Jen obryan | 04 February 2009

Perhaps there is one sense in which you can beat cancer: to know that it need never have the last word.

In the eulogy for my 23 year old son who died 8 weeks ago I said:

"From start to finish Ben won the battle with cancer. It did not beat him in the end. He overcame it. He overcame it by accepting it, by choosing how to deal with it. Cancer did not reduce Ben to complaining or bitterness. Cancer was no match for his conviction that there is much more to life than even death can take away."
Chris | 04 February 2009

Once again - congratulations to Eureka street on a great article.
anna Orchard | 09 February 2009

Completely disagree with your sentiments. As one of the few who have beaten Cll (Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia) I think that I have a fair knowledge of the subject. Cancer is readily beaten, however not with the methods of the medical profession.

There are a good number of very well attested and proven alternative ways of healing cancer but the doctors won't tell you about them as there is no money in it for them and like anyone in business they will do what is best for their bottom line.

Anyway if you are interested you can read my story here: www.clldefeated.com
You will find all the details of how I went about it and the background to my opening comments.
Hessel Baartse | 15 June 2009

Brian you write a very good article. The struggle with cancer is a journey into a dark corridor where we may find a passage to lead us inot the light.
MarkPickham | 23 September 2009

Sorry Brian - should have told you I can be found at www.anotherlife.com.au if you're interested to know where I'm 'coming from'.
Beryl Shaw | 21 November 2009

Hi Brian
Long time since I read your piece about not beating cancer. Thought I'd answered you, but only see my second comment here.
You are so right about words. I was in Dallas recently to run 2 x 75 min workshops for doctors at a big health conference. Put them through exercises so they could begin to understand the power of the words they use. As an author and educator I just love being invited to open minds.

Undiagnosed stage 3 cancer that almost killed me in 2001 was one of life's great lessons - and I revel in offering my books now to those who are on this 'cancer journey' and teaching health professionals new ways of working 'with' us.
Keep up the good work.

Beryl Shaw | 09 May 2011

It is sad that we have perpetrated the myth that illness comes to us uninvited and that we are victims. When Pasteur, who believed that our bodies were sterile and that germs invaded, a much more educated and knowledgeable man, Beauchamp, proposed that dis-ease comes when we are out of balance. It is the field, the terrain that creates the right environment for cancer and other disease to manifest. When the terrain or environment is changed, the disease goes away. The change can be via detoxing, supplying nutrients, diet, changing our attitudes, prayer, etc. A great book by Christopher Bird, The Persecution and Trial of Gaston Nassens, describes how, with a powerful microscope, Nassens watched a microorganism morph (change bodies) through 17 stages. The bacteria became a virus, became a fungus and other stages. When the environment changed, it could morph back into a less unhealthy organism. So it is with humans. There are many cancer cures and many unsung heroes who risk prosecution. by helping people heal. Of course, in the US, it is a crime to use the word cure, and the only legitimate treatment is by allopathic physicians who follow the basic tenements of Pasteur, using deadly treatments. We are kept in ignorance and kept in illness in order that the pharmaceutical companies and the allopathic systems can continue to make huge profits, while cancer rates now soar. The FDA, the USDA, and others collude in this horrible enslavement of the people to promote ignorance, to teach you to accept your illness, and watch your loved ones die horrible deaths. I do not use allopathic medicine or treatment. Every illness has a cause. With research, you can find the cause and the solution and you no longer have the dis-ease. We live in a highly toxic environment. I have researched health for over 50 years and I continue to learn from wonderful physicians who are MDs, NDs, PhDs, etc.
Patricia Patterson Tursi, Ph.D. | 07 July 2012


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