Another brave lady has lost her fight…



Posted July 6th, 2009 by Jane

No not me…I’m not a ‘lady’, not particularly brave, and I am not fighting anyone or anything.

I am though fascinated by the language which accompanies cancer in general and breast cancer in particular. Pretty much weekly on the breast cancer on-line forums there are messages identical to the one above or nearly so, following the death of another woman. I hug my head in my hands at this language which I think feeds into a massive mythology.

A word first of all about ‘lady’. I had thought that since Marilyn French’s groundbreaking novel in which the heroine sits on the loo contemplating the notice on the door where someone had crossed out Ladies and replaced it with Women’s Room, that no one used ‘Ladies’ any more. After all David Dimbleby calls the females in the audience for Question Time ‘women’..as in ‘The woman in the blue jumper at the basck…” Plus I was pleased to see ‘women’ being used at Wimbledon. No more ladies championships, rather they are, rightly, womens’ championships.

But get ill, get cancer and its always ‘lady’ or ‘ladies’ Even the nice man at the London Marsden does it, as does the radiologist who says: I saw this delightful lady yesterday…. (brave woman.. shame about the cancer growing.)

I digress…I can tolerate ‘lady’. Just wish someone could tell me what happened to ‘woman’ in the last 20 years. How did feminists allow ‘lady’ to reappear?

I don’t want to repeat here the arguments I made in my essay: Brave dead heroes and valiant survivors. If you haven’t then read it now! I am constantly reminded though that the only language in which women who have died of breast cancer are spoken is the language of bravery and fighting battles. It is so sad when no other words are spoken of the deceased. She was a unique individual and now she is dead. Why do people who knew her not say a few words about her contribution to the world, who she was, what was special aboout her.

Most of us living with cancer know the complicated feelings which arise when friends or famly describe us as ‘brave’. Here I think there is a distinction beween the public and the private. I do not want to be publicly described as brave because what choices did I have? Most of us diagnosed with cancer endure the surgery and the treatments because there isn’t really a choice. (well do nothing or do alternative..about which I’ll write another time.) However I think we each have our private bits of bravery; for one woman it may be overcomimg her fears of needles; for another it may be having a general anaesthetic which has always freaked her out; for me with a sickness phobia it has meant enduring chemotherapy and never once being sick…it was the sickness pills which actually did the trick…thank goodness anti-emetics have so greatly improved over the ast 10 years. There are several others ways in which those who are close to me know my private bits of bravery…and also the horrid bits, the days when I am not ‘brave’ but sad and horrible and childlike.

I like least of all using the battle metaphors in any way in the discussion of cancer. This language distorts the reality of cancer. People who are effectively cured after treatment for breast cancer are lucky, their cancer may have been found early, or more likely they simply didn’t have an aggressive strand of cancer. Their survival has nothing to do with putting up the good fight…oh how I hate that implication. With advanced and secondary cancer there’s no equal fight going on; cancer will eventually kill for sure, battle or not. In any case I don’t understand what the fight is about. We creep here into the language of positivity…the idea that a good and positive attitude towards having cancer will help the ‘fight’ . I always wonder about those who didn’t fight or battle, but rather like me are whinging and raging against the dying of the light. Dying from a terminal illness is quite bad enough wihout the additional pressure to keep fighting. I’m someone who hopes to let go when the time is right and the language of ‘giving up’ or ‘losing the fight’ will never be spoken by me, and I hope not by those who love me.

When the time comes: ‘Jane has died’ will suit me just fine and if you can find some nice things to say about how you knew me, about my life, then that would be just great.