Open any local paper and you are likely to read the following headline: “Survivor Loses Battle with Cancer.”
We have adopted the language of war. Those with the disease are described as heroes. Finding a cure is a war. Our medical community leads our forces. Everyone must join the fight.
I challenge this metaphor. My former wife, Barbara, died from cancer, and my current wife, Jessica, has faced her second form of cancer.
Barbara was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer at the age of 34. She wanted to fully understand her disease, and she undertook every medical advance available.
The problem with the warrior metaphor is that it focuses less on life than death. The “courageous warrior” suggests toughness, certainty, and strength.
Barbara had a zest for life, a sense of humor, the ability to live with uncertainty and a willingness to share her deepest feelings including anger at injustice. These served her in life with cancer.
Throughout her illness, Barbara wanted to make sure that our family would continue to do the things we loved. Our children would go to every new children’s movie. This was not easy, as we had to bring the wheelchair and oxygen tank. We did not cancel trips to the beach, and we planned more.
We used Barbara’s cancer to bring all the family together. Both our families recognized that every day and everyone was more precious than ever. As always, the Passover Seder continued to be held at our home. Barbara took a trip to see old friends and then another to Washington, DC.
Upon her return, Barbara needed more rest time. All her care would be done from home. Her oncologist, our good Dr. B., began making more visits to the house. Without talk, he set out a plan for Barbara’s end of life treatment.
One night she called all of the family to her bedside. She sent her sister to the closet and announced that she had a gift for me. She had gotten a white doctor’s coat from Dr. B. and had it lettered in 70′s psychedelic style -My Doctor.
She died the next day, and was buried on September 18,1981. In Jewish gematria (numerology), 18 is the equivalent of the Hebrew word chai which means life.
After being a widower for three years, and now with two teens, I met Jessica, a family doctor who is committed to social justice, loves children, and is a careful observer of people and a wonderful writer.
Within a year we were married. Our life continued with our two older children Kafia and Eddie growing up and going off to college and then the birth of Talia and Jeremy.
On September 30, 2005, mybirthday, we learned that Jessica had breast cancer. She needed two surgeries and radiation treatments. She then entered a five-year clinical trial to prevent another breast cancer.
But cancer is never too far from anyone. In the summer of 2010Jessica had pelvic reconstruction surgery. After hours of surgery, her doctors checked the bladder to be sure that they had not “done any harm.” In checking, they saw tumors, a bladder cancer that had lain hidden. If she had not had this surgery, it would have progressed and had a worse prognosis.
Jessica was immediately scheduled to see her urological oncologist. We met young Dr. G., whose manner I quickly appreciated. Serious and frank, he made sure we understood the different forms of bladder cancer. Jessica would require two more trips to the operating room.
So how did Jessica cope with this news, and what did I observe? It would be easy to use our cultural and linguistic metaphors and simply see Jessica as a determined, courageous woman prepared to fight another “good battle.” But this approach is too limited. It limits both our understanding of human behavior and how we deal with illness. It does tell us a lot about culture, language, and myth.
Jessica has practiced medicine for over 30years. Her experience as a patient has also taught her much. Jessica feels it is ironic that, while she has made healthy living both a personal and professional pursuit, she could not prevent this cancer. Brave, yes… Human, too.
The Schorr Family shares a love of wit. During one of her low points I remarked to Jessica that she still could find something to laugh about. She responded, “I will not lose my sense of humor.”
Jessica has always loved Judaism. She asked me to read a chapter on healing which has in part led me to write this essay. The author, Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky, suggests that in the Jewish tradition we see illness and death as a part of life. Shalom is often translated as peace. It more accurately means wholeness.
The Hebrew word shalom recognizes that life contains both joy and sadness and health and illness.My anthropology of illness and death requires that we keep in mind the complexity of human and social behavior. I look forward to the day when we discard the language of war as the fitting way to honor our loved ones, but rather see people in their wholeness and complexity. Shalom is a better metaphor.
Allen B. Saxe is a retired professor of anthropology and lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.