Them’s Fightin’ Words

7 Sep

Now a safe(r) 115 days away from my transplant, I’ve allowed my mind to wander a bit from the protected doldrums of counting down the days until the illusive “all clear.”

When I was in the hospital I wouldn’t listen to music – not even the music Jimmy gave me. I didn’t want to wreck it. I ruined so many songs during my high school hospital days because I came to correlate the beats of Michelle Branch (she was cool, okay?) with my vexing anti-seizure bed pads and the early darkness that was that winter. So many negative associations were made during that time. I even almost hated Steinbeck for a while; East of Eden took me to Rochester, MN instead of Salinas, CA. The 600+ pages seemed to turn as slowly as my progress. Writing became repositioning bad news as semi-positive news, promising people for months that I would valiantly keep up the fight.

I’ve been “fighting” cancer almost as long as the first bombs dropped in Shock and Awe. Like the real wars of my generation, our individual battles against cancer are increasingly chronic, less acute. We’re less likely to sign a treaty and say our osteosarcoma is cured because we live longer, giving rise to cancer treatment-related MDS rebels.

Often when I write about cancer I use the combative language that is cancer. You know – the cancer jargon that is heroic if you’re on the winning side (“that girl’s a real fighter”), victimizing if you’re on the losing side (“after a fierce fight she lost her battle with cancer”). There’s been a lot of talk about it in the news lately. Some cancer patients and authors have criticized this lingo because it connotes winners and losers. Those who “beat” cancer are immortalized as war heroes, people about whom those of us at home say “I don’t know how she does it” as they hear stories of valor and fighting to the end.

Like soldiers coming home from war, some cancer survivors come home and tell their magnificent war stories. For some, the goal is to top the stories of their compatriots. “I underwent 40 regimens of the most brutal radiation they could muster, but I didn’t end up in the hospital like most other people.” Others like to astound those unfamiliar with cancer – they’re easier to impress.

Those who “lost their battle” are casualties in the war on cancer, immortalized, sure, but often not celebrated like a cancer survivor. No pink tiara to lead laps with. They may deserve a purple heart, but they don’t get a beating one.

Susan Sontag, a cultural critic who actually died of MDS, also her third cancer, (read her son’s account of her real “fight” in NY Times Magazine) famously argued, “As long as a particular disease is treated as an evil, invincible predator, not just a disease, most people with cancer will indeed be demoralized by learning what disease they have.” (Sontag, Illness As Metaphor, 1978)

But I often use them fightin’ words when I write about cancer not because I mean to make it sound dreadful, but simply because I’m at a loss for other words. To me, the offensive a patient wages against cancer is inseparable from the vocabulary itself. I checked my worn thesaurus, and there aren’t many verbs that seem like suitable replacements for “fighting” cancer. To say “I’m being treated for cancer” or “I’m suffering from cancer” feels passive; to say “I’m dealing with cancer” makes it sound like a bad headache. Nor are there nouns that assume the duality of the individual and universal “fight against cancer.”

But as was recently pointed out by Daniel Menaker in a New York Times op-ed, it may be more productive to think of cancer as a problem, not an enemy.  I think this is a good way to approach it. Doing so takes some of the burden out of cancer, removing the pressure to be a courageous soldier who will carry on no matter the situation in the trenches. Instead of these warlike words that forsake humanness for “bravery” no matter the cost, we remember that quality of life matters a lot. In fact, I think some of the best cancer “problem solvers” have been those “fallen heroes” who chose quality of life over expensive, unsure, invasive treatment. Going out with a fight isn’t typically the most peaceful.

So as Menaker suggests, perhaps the different languages of fighting/dealing with/being treated for/looking for the bright side in cancer each have their place. At times we must be rational problem solvers, and at other times we need the “take no prisoners” passionate talk to boost morale.

As Dana Jennings said about his prostate cancer, it’s hard to articulate how being seriously ill feels. Sometimes words are just inadequate. So we make do.

Oh yes, my health…

My blood counts are back on the upswing. They’re not where a normal 114-Day girl should be because I had that plunge around Day 60, but they’re good for me where I am. I’m hoping that my hemoglobin goes up so I can sleep away only 14 hours of my day instead of 15. The biggest news is that if I can stay out of trouble in the next few weeks, they’ll schedule surgery to remove my hickman (or my hickey, as my Aunt Ann fondly calls it). That will lengthen my leash quite a bit.

I’m taking the GRE in two weeks because it’s half off if you take it before September 30. The frugal me said, Why not? I’ve started studying and am angry at my 10th grade-self who deliberately forgot the Pythagorean Theorem after my geometry final. Mr. Mertz, I’m sorry to admit it, but I forgot those equations when I left high school, and I’ll forget them again. (Except maybe FOIL. That one stuck.) So I’ve decided that if I do badly, I’ll blame it on chemobrain. If I do well, I’ll attribute it to genius DESPITE chemobrain.

I’ve also become quite the saleswoman. We’re trying to sell my brother’s old car, and what better venue than KNUJ Radio’s Tradio? If you’re unfamiliar, New Ulm-area KNUJ loyalists call in religiously every Saturday morning with select prized possessions for sale or gems they’re in search of. I think my sales pitch followed the lady who “would take three dollars” for her plastic Easter Lilly and right before the guy looking to buy mannequin heads. Then they cut out for a report live from the farmer’s market in the Runnings Fleet & Farm parking lot. “We’ve got potatoes, tomatoes, onions and fresh-baked apfelkuchens.” That’s one word we all know around here.

I "surprised" Jimmy by visiting for his birthday. His surprise birthday party somehow turned into a Day 100 party (notice the balloon ratio). Thanks, Margeaux and Kyle, for hosting!

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8 Responses to “Them’s Fightin’ Words”

  1. erika hanson brown September 7, 2011 at 10:29 am #

    Hi, there, Miss Jenna!! It’s so good to hear from you.
    Yes, COLONTOWN citizens are filling the “airwaves” with conversation about them fightin’ words.
    Like everyone – I HATE the phrase “..so and so lost their battle with cancer”. And they don’t use that terminology with any other disease – that I have ever seen!!!
    A term that I don’t have a problem with is “confront”.
    And you, my dear, are one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of that!!!
    much love,
    erika

  2. Sarah Rotering September 7, 2011 at 10:39 am #

    Okay as a former KNUJ employee I have to correct you, it’s Tradio. And hot diggity damn, it WORKS!! off my soapbox now ….;)

    Oh that FOIL, friggin’ geometry ^#@!%&. Loooooooooooooonnnnggg forgotten!

    Keep on keepin’ on pretty lady!

    • Jenna Langer September 7, 2011 at 7:43 pm #

      Ha! I can’t believe I’m so inaccurate. I’ll fix it. Oh, and you bet it works. I have a 70 year-old interest from Gibbon already 🙂

  3. Rose Forst September 7, 2011 at 1:26 pm #

    Hey Jenna,

    You can really put things into words. I am still in awe of your writing. I look forward to your updates. Nice balloons. Thinking of you often,

  4. Fran Albright September 7, 2011 at 4:48 pm #

    Jenna: Your writing is super. We who have survived are to give hope to others. Not for our whole lives to be defined by the tragedy of the disease, but to move beyond. I loved your “fightin words”.
    Fran

  5. Sharon B. Deutsch September 7, 2011 at 7:31 pm #

    Nicely put, Jenna. Good luck with the GRE! 🙂

  6. Laurie Pappenfus September 8, 2011 at 2:10 pm #

    Jenna,
    Your words are anything but inadequate. You are insightful, articulate, funny and it is a joy to read your thoughts as well as get updates on your health. Keep doing what you are doing.
    Prayers, Laurie

  7. Wendy September 11, 2011 at 7:24 pm #

    Jenna, you’re an amazing and extremely talented young woman. You’ve already left your mark on this world, I’m looking forward to hearing about all your future successes!

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