(Summer re-runs are mostly a thing of the past. And that’s mostly a good thing, I think. So, I am somewhat hesitantly re-running this old blog post. It’s from April 14, 2012. Partly I’m re-running it because my blog was still in its early stages when it was first posted – and I didn’t have all that many readers – but mostly I’m re-running it because I’ve had some very recent conversations with family and friends about the topic – namely, how should Christians talk about illness and disease?
If anything, I’ve grown even more uncomfortable with the militaristic metaphors that people like to use when they’re sick. I know what “fighting cancer” means, and I’d likely do the same with cancer or any other illness I might face, but fighters are not typically the people I admire, as the story about my college roommate makes clear. And I wonder if our faith, too, leads us to say something more.
A member of my family recently completed a year of chemo and radiation therapy. She battled – no doubt about it – but what everyone saw and loved about her response to the illness wasn’t the fight. It was the way she re-discovered life. She lived the last year with the kind of zest and determination that thrilled the rest of us. She savored each moment with grandchildren. She traveled And mostly she lived. And everyone around her loved hearing and reading about it – not the war she and her doctors waged, but the life she lived.)
The story of my college room-mate
A dear friend of mine from college days – he was my roommate, and his wife was my wife’s roommate – has now entered hospice care. A year or so ago, he learned that he had a brain tumor and that he had maybe six months to live.
I had lunch with him last August when I was in Michigan on my vacation, and it was good to see him again. And even though he looked ravaged from the chemo and radiation treatments, he was the same sweet man I knew from our college days. I count the two hours we spent together as precious and sacred time, God’s good gift to me.
His vocation over the years has been college-level English teaching, and at our lunch he expressed the hope that he would be able to teach at least one class in the fall, which as it turns out he was able to do. I wish I could have heard him teach that class! That he has lived more than a year after diagnosis has been a blessing to him and his family, a wonderful gift.
Last week I read in the Care Pages that he, his wife, and his sons post regularly to keep friends like me up to date on his condition, that he had entered hospice care, and I saw that someone praised him there for his “courageous battle” with cancer. That’s not the first time I’ve seen war or military metaphors used to describe our experiences with diseases like cancer, but for the first time it struck me as wrong – or at least not quite accurate.
Having cancer is not always like waging war.
What others are saying
So, I sent an email this week to an old friend who’s a Presbyterian pastor and who has been living with cancer off and on for several years. He keeps an online pastor’s diary about his experience with cancer, and I’ve been a regular reader. To Carlos, I wrote, “Where are you with this whole ‘courageous battle’ thing?”
And here’s what Carlos wrote: “Cancerous cells are not some foreign invader: a band of terrorist commandos who slip across the border on forged passports, to blow themselves up, and us along with them. Cancer cells spring from our own loins. They arise from out of our own bodies, the result of genetic mutations that, despite science’s best efforts, are still only dimly understood….It just doesn’t make sense, biologically speaking, to think of cancer as an outside invader. Our own bodies make the cancer. The cancer is us. If we’re going to use the military metaphor at all, I suppose we’ve got to describe it as a civil war – a protracted, brother-against-brother slugfest – rather than some pious crusade against a foreign enemy.”
But my friend Carlos isn’t the only person who resists this language. A quick Internet search turned up dozens of articles from people who think it’s not quite the right language.
Here’s something from Dr. Gary M. Reisfield, a palliative care specialist at University of Florida, Jacksonville: “Over the last 40 years, war has become the most common metaphor, with patients girding themselves against the enemy, doctors as generals, medicines as weapons. When the news broke about Senator [Ted] Kennedy, he was ubiquitously described as a fighter. While the metaphor may be apt for some, it may be a poor choice for others. You think you have to fight this war, and people expect you to fight.”
A new way of thinking about illness and disease
As a pastor – and someone who spends a fair amount of time providing pastoral care to people who have cancer – I often find myself admiring people for their courage in the face of illness, but I try not to have expectations for them. We all respond differently to illness and disease.
To some it’s natural to fight and resist. For others – and I think my friend in Michigan fits this other category – it’s far more natural to live with the disease, to find each new day to be a marvelous gift, to accept the care of physicians for what it is, and to seize the time between diagnosis and death as a time to take relationships to a new and deeper level.
Is it time to add new language, new metaphors, to our conversations about cancer and other disease? I think so.
(The college friend I mentioned, David J. Klooster, passed away June 2, 2012. The news story is here.)