Or at least think about how we talk about illness and the words we use?
Here are some phrases which get used a lot about illnesses:
– fighting cancer
– lost his/her battle with <insert illness>
– s/he’s a fighter, s/he’ll be ok
– s/he’s going to beat it
– s/he lost/won the battle
There are more, but you get the idea. I really, really dislike these phrases. I’m aware they come out of a place of love, of solidarity and support and are said to show how courageous the person is with the illness. But they’re actually pretty damaging for lots of reasons.
‘Fighting’ implies that you can do something about illness. If you’re taking your meds and following your treatment plan in whatever form it takes, you can’t do anything more. Closing your eyes, crossing your fingers and clicking your heals together 3 times while whispering ‘I can fight this, I’m a fighter’ won’t make the slightest bit of difference. Bodies are amazing, but there’s only so much they can do, even combined with medicine. Illnesses win, despite our best efforts. But what you’re left with if your illness declines and you’ve had people tell you how much of a fighter you are, is this niggling feeling that you didn’t fight hard enough. You feel like you’ve let people down. And you don’t need guilt, stress and anxiety on top of everything else.
You didn’t lose a battle if you didn’t stand a chance in the first place. No one says the Japanese lost their battle with the atomic bomb when it was dropped suddenly on Hiroshima in the Second World War. They were ambushed, they didn’t see it coming. That’s what happens with illness. Sometimes you don’t stand a chance. To say that someone lost their battle when they die is really patronising and belittling- it implies, again, that they didn’t do enough or didn’t mobilise the right forces. I know it’s usually said to indicate how long someone has been sick for and how challenging it was, but there’s still an element of ‘blame’. And we all know how people love to tell chronically ill and cancer patients that eating kale, drinking smart water and taking up yoga will cure them of their illness, right?
Positive thinking doesn’t cure illness. You can be positive about your treatment and do all you can to physically and mentally help yourself, but positive thinking alone doesn’t cure anything. It actually just puts you under an immense amount of pressure to be ok with everything that’s going on, which is unrealistic and impossible to do.
Chronic illness isn’t a series of battles with respite, it’s constant. Some treatments work in cycles, or you have periods of time between appointments and more tests. Or your illness is here to stay and you have to learn how to live with it. Regardless of how it manifests, people seem to have this idea that people ‘fight’ illness for a pre-determined amount of time, then go back to their ‘normal’ lives and get ready for the next ‘battle’ with renewed energy. But that’s not how it works. Let me tell you, it’s constant. You don’t get a break. You never feel rested, pain or symptom free or ‘go back to normal’. Some people are very lucky in the sense that they might have normal ish periods of time, but they probably also have horrendous ones too which more than make up for it. Imagine having a cold constantly times by 10 and how enthused you feel by someone telling you that you’re ‘winning the battle’ when actually you feel like you’re waist deep in mud in a trench kind of hoping a stray enemy bullet puts you out of your misery. But even if you were at breaking point, you wouldn’t feel like you’d ever be able to admit it because you’re supposed to be a fighter, battling against your illness so you can win the war. That’s what people keep telling you anyway… and if you’ve not got cancer, you should be ‘grateful you don’t have cancer’. And if you do, there’s always kale and yoga you should be doing 😉
It implies that our lives are a constant battle field. Illness sucks but it’s still part of someone’s life. You hear about cancer kids liking the familiarity and routine of their treatments because that’s all they know. Saying that everything is a constant fight implies that our lives aren’t as good or are on hold or chaos-ridden. Which they might be, but they’re still valid and we don’t necessarily want to be reminded of the chaos when things are seeming slightly less so. To say people are constantly fighting illness suggests people waiting for something to end (in either death or cure), when really people with illnesses are trying to get through life just as much as anyone else is.
It’s a very British thing to trot out phrases you hear and think that they’re ok and positive to say. It doesn’t help that big media outlets like the BBC are particularly bad for saying all of the phrases above, so they kind of get engrained in our subconscious. Illness in whatever shape or form is hard and all relative to circumstance. Support doesn’t have to be telling people how brave and courageous they are for fighting illness. Or kale and yoga! It can be a lot more subtle than that. Humour goes a long way 😉