As Jack Layton’s example has shown us, saying that a patient “lost a fight” with cancer doesn’t imply weakness or failure, but courage and strength.
Before Jack Layton died, he told everyone that he was going to fight cancer, and that he expected to beat it. The last tweet posted to his Twitter account in his lifetime, in fact, was, “Your support and well wishes are so appreciated. Thank you. I will fight this—and beat it.” As I noted in my small contribution to the cavalcade of tributes to him after his death was announced, this could only be understood as a metaphor, and I think Jack understood it as such, since you cannot do much as a patient to fight cancer. You submit to treatment and hope the treatment kills the disease before it kills you.
So I understand why we’ve now seen a series of pieces reminding us, in the aftermath of Layton’s death, that cancer patients are engaged in something other than a fight—they are sufferers of a disease. For instance, there was a piece by Carly Weeks in the Globe and Mail headlined “Jack Layton didn’t lose a fight: He died of cancer,” in which the opening sentences sum up the objection: “Did Jack Layton die from cancer because he didn’t fight the disease hard enough? Of course not.”
And then today, Heather Cleland wrote a post for the Walrus blog that comments on the public urge to grieve. That main point aside, Cleland, who has suffered from cancer herself, emphasizes her distate for battle metaphors in this case:
The language around cancer—of “battles” fought, won, lost, and succumbed to—fails to consider the sheer chance of it all. Sure there are cancers that we bring upon ourselves, but most are a result of the tiniest bits of bodies going rogue for reasons we’ve yet to understand. To speak of lost battles as though the warrior didn’t want victory badly enough projects our proclivity to control outcomes onto something that cannot be controlled. It’s futile, and it does a great disservice to people like Jack and Rachel who “fought” as hard as I did.
As I’ve noted, I think fight metaphors have some limits in their usefulness when it comes to the treatment of disease. But I wanted to take a moment to defend those who use them—including the members of my family who have suffered from cancer and Jack Layton himself—by pointing out what seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding in these objections of what it means to fight, and to lose a fight.
As the quotes above show, the heart of the objection is the implication that those who die from cancer—who “lose” their “fight”—suffer a stigma for not being determined enough or fighting hard or well enough. Which to me is a completely foreign concept. For there is no more noble a figure in the part of our collective consciousness that romanticizes fighting than the warrior who battles to the end even when he knows that he will lose. A martyr to his cause. He fights not because he has chosen the fight, nor because he thinks he has any chance to win. He fights because the alternative, surrender, is unthinkable.
I’m reminded of Winston Churchill’s famous speech at the point in World War II when Britain was fighting alone, their allies already defeated, and when they appeared certain to lose the war—England appeared to face annihilation. Their choices, it seemed, were to surrender to the Nazis and willingly submit to fascism, or to die:
We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…
Never surrender whatever the cost may be—that is the the key part here. It is the theme that runs through fight metaphors all through history. A Greek citizen beat the same drum even more emphatically as the Nazis marched to take over his country, as Christopher Hitchens writes: “When the Nazis joined Italy to punish this intransigence, and exerted overwhelming force, a Greek editor wrote an imperishable front-page article saying that Greece, which had once taught men how to live, would now show them how to die.”
And how is that? They will, as it goes, die upon their feet rather than live upon their knees. This is what we talk about when we talk about fighting: we may lose, but we will not surrender. We may die, but our spirit will not be crushed.
This is to say that there is no indignity in losing a fight. We build monuments—to the unknown soldier, for instance—to those who die fighting.
The sports world, which is a fruitful source of metaphors specifically because the activities of sport themselves are essentially meaningless empty vessels, has a cliché for this, written originally by Grantland Rice: “For when the One Great Scorer comes / To write against your name, / He marks – not that you won or lost – / But how you played the Game.”
Socrates, an intellectual warrior, famously submitted to the death penalty rather than compromising his beliefs. Christians remember the martyrs who stood strong in their faith even if it would see them killed. Americans remember the Alamo. Cool Hand Luke fought and fought and kept on fighting even though he had no chance of winning. McMurphy, in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, resists until the ability to resist is taken from him. Dylan Thomas, in the famous poem, pleads with his father to do what we the living want from those who will die: “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” The heroic fighters of our collective memory and myth are not heroes because they won, but because they were willing to fight on in the face of impossible odds, rather than giving in.
And in my understanding, and in my own occasional use, this is what is evoked by fight metaphors in relation to cancer, individually and collectively: the occurrence of the disease appears arbitrary and cruel, and its course can be relentless. But we struggle: we attempt to raise money to drive research to find new and better treatments to cancer; we try to change our behaviours to lessen the odds that the disease will take hold and grow in our cells; patients stricken with the illness submit to punishing treatments that attack their own bodies; and, most of all, we attempt to ensure that our spirits are not withered, even if our bodies are. The ideal we fight for, even as our bodies may give out, is life—and the good life.
It’s instructive that, in addition to being one of the most lethal diseases humans face, cancer is also a commonly used metaphor. We refer to undesirable ideas or trends or crimes as “a cancer on our society.” The things we tend to refer to as cancerous are fast-spreading and self-annihilating: they pursue a predatory course of expansion that will ultimately kill the body (or body politic) they infect and themselves along with it. They tend also to appear inexplicable, and unstoppable. But those invoking this metaphor almost always insist we should fight, with whatever tools and energy we can muster, to reverse the course of the spread of the problem. Metaphorically, cancer is among the most difficult and menacing ideas we can muster to illustrate a grave, seemingly insurmountable problem. And metaphorically, fighting is the only appropriate response we can think of to cancer.
Next page: Jack Layton’s fighting spirit
 I think Cleland is mistaken: she thinks that sharing your grief with others, immediately, especially if you’re all saying the same thing, cheapens it and makes it into pure spectacle, a fundamental misunderstanding of human mourning she shares with Christie Blatchford—I think both are precisely wrong in their idea that the urge among mourners was to be part of a public spectacle, to participate in a trend, rather than an urge to collectively pay tribute in the hopes that the sheer mass of our voices and of our bodies at public squares and events would be an adequate farewell monument to a man who has helped shape our country. This is what we all do, and long have done, at funerals. Pay our respects, publicly. Showing each other that the deceased lives on in our memories and in how we live, and reminding each other that though we have lost a friend, we are still here, together, to go on. [back]