It's easy to refer to those who battle through cancer as "warriors" but Dr Peter Bach says it's time that we stop.
In a recent article for New York Magazine, Bach wrote about an experience he had with US TV personality Amy Robach who spoke about her battle with cancer. Robach learned that she had cancer in her one breast after undergoing a mammogram live on television, and has been a champion of the screening method ever since, saying that it "saved her life". She subsequently underwent a bilateral mastectomy (having both breasts removed) because she felt it was the most aggressive treatment available, proudly exclaiming that she "kicked cancer's butt", and encouraged women to "fight like a girl" so they can beat the debilitating disease.
Bach argues that a statement like this makes the fight with cancer seem similar to a boxing match, that if the one who is strongest, fights the hardest and wants it most triumphs, and that by implication Robach is saying that those who ultimately succumb to the disease simply didn't fight hard enough.
Cancer is tough. The treatment is hard on the body and we should never underestimate it. Even when a patient comes through on the other side, the treatment can leave lasting effects and a diminished quality of life in its wake. I have witnessed this first hand, my mother having to go through the ordeal twice, thankfully surviving it. Even if you've been through it before and you have an idea what to expect, you're never completely prepared. It never gets easier. It's still cancer and it can still kill you.
It's easy to use the fighting metaphor, because it’s something we can visualise – one opponent against another – but comparing battling cancer with a boxing match is insulting to those who simply could not fight. Someone who goes to the doctor complaining about back pain and discovering their spine is riddled with cancer, or a toddler who contracts brain cancer before he's even started pre-school - those people could not have "fought".
With cancer there are no stronger or weaker fighters, and throwing in the towel is not a sign of defeat or weakness of the spirit. It is a fight you don’t wish upon your worst enemy and every single cancer sufferer puts in a brave and heroic effort, but whether they make it through to the other side is simply down to the hand that they've been dealt.
In his book The brain is wider than the sky, author Bryan Appleyard argues the futility of trying to simplify things in a world that is inherently complex. We seem to have this idea that if we break things into little chunks it will be easier to understand. While this works for some things, we often miss the mark completely with others; cancer is one of them.
According to the Cancer Association of South Africa, breast cancer is the most prevalent form of cancer among women in South Africa, with one in 29 women being diagnosed with the disease every year. Awareness campaigns such as Breast Cancer Awareness Month have been very successful in bringing the public's attention to cancer, as well as educating women on screening measures that that may increase the chance of early detection of malignant cancerous cells. All of this helps, but as Bach points out, some of our views on the fight against cancer are a little misguided and oversimplified.
Science has yet to find a cure for cancer, bearing testament to the disease's complexity. While we try to understand the disease and provide support to loved ones who suffer from it by simplifying it down to a round of fisticuffs, we may do more damage to their spirit than good.
Edited by Bryony Whitehead