By Tim Hayes
Word choice means so much. The ways in which we characterize, describe, and assign value to things makes an enormous difference in how we think and act toward them.
A valiant effort. A crushing loss. A daunting challenge. A moral victory. Each word conjures specific ideas and attitudes. Words matter.
One word in particular, though, has always troubled me at a fundamental level. Maybe it’s because it had been applied to me 20 years ago. It made me uncomfortable then, and still does today, as it gets used in every similar situation, regardless of the person involved or their particular story.
I’m referring to the “battle” with cancer.
Look in the obituaries in the newspaper any day of the week, and you will see listings of deceased people who had “waged a courageous battle with cancer.” When famous celebrities or people in the news contract some form of cancer, they immediately get tagged with the “battle” term to describe their treatment and hoped-for recovery.
It sounds noble and hopeful, I agree, doing “battle” with such a frightening and powerful enemy. My problem, though, is that the word itself gets used exclusively, across every circumstance where cancer has reared its ugly head, and has in turn become nearly meaningless. Generic. Dishwater language. Verbal wallpaper.
Plus, it’s not always an accurate description anyway. I should know.
Two decades ago, my family physician became concerned about a hard lump he discovered. Keeping an optimistic, yet realistic, attitude, he ordered a number of tests to rule out various possibilities. Yet, in the end, he had to give me the news that I indeed had a form of cancer.
Thanks to his knowledge, diligence, and thoroughness, it was caught very early on and the prognosis for a full recovery looked strong.
Even so, when a doctor pulls out the “C-word” – and he’s talking about YOU – well, my friends, I’m here to tell you that’s a moment you will never forget.
After surgery to remove the tumor, three months of radiation treatments followed. No chemotherapy, so no hair loss. Just a lot of tossing my cookies from the radiation, which seemed a relatively small price to pay.
But at no point in the proceedings – including the five years of follow-up testing to prove that I had emerged cancer-free – did I feel like a warrior doing “battle.” Far from it.
No sir, I was terrified, confused, angry, and completely submissive to the medical professionals in charge of getting me fully well. My attitude became, “You guys are the experts, so tell me what to do, where to be and when. Make this thing go away. You’re in charge.”
Hardly a personal “battle” against cancer. More like a surrender to the reality of the situation, and placing all trust in the hands of my treatment team. I laid down on my shield, letting others do the fighting and carry me from the field of battle.
So when you hear that word so cavalierly tossed around every time someone faces – or has been taken by – cancer, perhaps give them the benefit of the doubt that they, in fact, waged a “battle” against it. But also realize it’s not always true.
Word choice really does matter.
Copyright 2014 Transverse Park Productions LLC