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  • Writer's pictureBrad Thiessen

Is Cancer a Battle You Can Fight? It Depends How You Look At The Words.

Updated: May 20

Image by ArtCoreStudios on pixabay

There's a lot of debate in the cancer community around some of the words we use around cancer. Words like fight and enemy and battle.

We fight cancer, that evil enemy.

If we make it through treatment alive, we've won the battle.

Like some others, I've struggled with these words. For the most part, they just haven't rung true for me.

Cancer isn’t an enemy, some of us say – it’s a disease. It’s your own body attacking itself.

It isn’t a battle, we say – battle language means victor and defeated, and dying does not equal defeat. Plus, it’s inherently negative to talk about battle. Choose life, not war.

As I wrote in a previous blog post What Exactly Am I, comedienne Tig Notaro she says the idea of being called brave and using the terminology of battling is troublesome because it feels to her, like to me, that

a) she didn’t sign up for the whole ordeal; and

b) the prime requirement was to just not die. “It seemed that what people were calling courageous was simply the fact that I happened to still be breathing,” she writes

And yet, I read posts on Facebook from people in the midst of treatment talking about fighting that evil enemy Cancer. When I hear them use battle language, I feel their pain and hear their resolve and courage and see how they're fighting with all their heart and souls for the precious life that's the only gift any of us have.

Are they fighting an enemy? Yes. Its name is Cancer, and they know it well.

Do they know they could lose that battle? Absolutely. They face that reality every day.

Are they resigned to losing? Absolutely not. Most of the time.

Does that make them warriors in a battle?

I think so. And as a warrior, their deeds should be celebrated as an outpouring of the human spirit. If war language helps them embrace life and search for purpose, then it's done its job.

But that hasn't been my story. Not exactly, anyway. Not always.


During the treatment phase of my first cancer back in 2001, it didn't feel like I was fighting.

Like for Tig Notaro, the whole process – surgery to remove the brain tumor, followed by radiation and chemo – felt more like a dreary, drawn-out process than a heroic battle, like throwing a wall of sandbags up around your house during a flood.

But afterwards, when treatment was over, I realized I had been fighting. I realized it because now that had been given a clean bill of health (for the time being, at least), I had no more fight left in me.

Looking back, I saw that I indeed been fighting during treatment, if in a strange sense with a strange set of weapons. I had fought using acceptance. I had fought using patience. I had fought using the innate positivity inherited from my father.

But as I stood there trying to make sense of that year-long fight for a cancer-free brain and looking forward at the future that was supposed to be bright with promise and hope, I couldn't celebrate a victory.

Yes, I was still standing, but the threat still lurked. Cancer was still a promise in my future. It wasn't an enemy... exactly. It was a shadow, a lurking presence whose tentacles of fear reached out two weeks before each follow-up MRI and two weeks after while I waited for results.

And there was no way to fight that disease, or the fear it brought with it. Now that I was on my own without my treatment team, I had no tools or weapons, and no one to watch my back.

So it turned I must have been fighting after all, even when I didn’t realize it. And I had been fighting an enemy, Cancer.

But I was cancer free! For the time being, at least. That was great news, right?

I had won the first, physical phase of the battle, but I was losing the second, emotional phase.


When the brain tumor reappeared fifteen years later, I was ready. I was definitely more afraid, because this time, I knew what I was in for.

But this time, I was determined to come out of treatment with a stronger sense of self – with the spiritual and emotional strength to keep growing. With less bitterness, more inner strength.

I set big goals throughout my treatment: health goals, relationship goals, direction and purpose goals. In my mind, cancer was more an obstacle than an enemy.

Can you fight without having an enemy? I ran a fifty mile race three years ago and let me tell you, those last ten miles were all fight. With no enemy in sight, other than my own stupidity for signing up for the punishment in the first place.

I didn't swallow my last chemo pill. It's still in its jar, glued shut, on my dresser. That pill was part of my fight. But when I finished my treatment, my fight was over.

Once I sealed up that pill, I moved on from fighting to... What, exactly? Living. Putting into practice all the growth and goals that helped me fight during treatment.

And for the most part, it has worked. I avoided the bitterness that took over much of my life after the first treatment.

My cancer experiences are imprinted on me for life. I have the scars to prove it, on my body and my brain and memories and fears that will probably never go away...

And also growth. And insight. And a new desire to grow and learn and live.

I'm glad I’ve been able move on from my second brain cancer experience without viewing each day as a battle with an enemy.

I'm also glad for every person who gets through their cancer experience, however they manage it.

So if you're fighting an evil enemy, pick up that sword and strap on that armor. Be a warrior, as far as I’m concerned.

If you're like me, and you're done fighting, go ahead and just keep on keeping on.

Either way, celebrate life!

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