In the Red corner November 8, 2011 12:51 PM   Subscribe

Damn, I really loathe the "lost their battle to cancer" cliche. This thread. So as to not derail the Joe Fraser thread even more, I thought this might be an appropriate place to sort this one out. Apologies if this is considered incorrect use of Meta.

I´m getting into an airplane for 10 hrs so I won´t be around. However I would like to see this lazy cliche go away.
posted by adamvasco to Etiquette/Policy at 12:51 PM (120 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite



You can tinker with the phrasing, but it's still going to be an obituary post. "Found somebody that died and want to share it? Great!"
posted by Wolfdog at 12:55 PM on November 8, 2011


Why do you loathe it?
posted by amro at 12:56 PM on November 8, 2011


As long as we're griping about cliches, can we knock off "now if you'll excuse me, I've got something stuck in my eye"?
posted by roger ackroyd at 12:56 PM on November 8, 2011 [32 favorites]


Bus plunge.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 12:56 PM on November 8, 2011 [7 favorites]


I really loathe when people post MetaTalk threads then disappear for 10 hours.
posted by amro at 12:59 PM on November 8, 2011 [10 favorites]


"...failed his final exam with cancer."
"...surrendered the contested territory to cancer."
"...was unable to rescue the hostages taken by cancer."
"...came home on his shield made of cancer."
"...lost the primary election to cancer."
posted by griphus at 12:59 PM on November 8, 2011 [32 favorites]


My brother died of cancer, and I can relate to the loathing of the phrase. I personally hated the implication that he had lost at anything. So whenever I heard someone mention it when discussing him, I made a point of saying "No, he kicked the shit outta that cancer for exactly as long as he felt like it. Then he died to spite the cancer." Not mature, really, but I get why you might hate it.
posted by Perthuz at 12:59 PM on November 8, 2011 [67 favorites]


"...Funked his last Winkerbean."
posted by Wolfdog at 1:00 PM on November 8, 2011 [16 favorites]


As long as we're griping, I'd like to gripe about people who make a Metatalk post complaining about something knowing that they won't be around for several hours. What is the logic behind that? The post really can't wait until you actually have time to discuss whatever your issue is?
posted by nooneyouknow at 1:00 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Damn, I really loathe the "lost their battle to cancer" cliche.

Then don't use it. If people want to use it to frame the death of someone they felt a connection to, whether to make it easier to talk about or to remember the deceased as a brave person, they are entitled to do so.
posted by moviehawk at 1:01 PM on November 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


It seems like there is some legitimate disagreement about the metaphor and a pretty respectful discussion going on in that thread except perhaps for your part of it, adamvasco-it didn't seem necessary for you to suggest that yerfatma was out of order or that he needed to go away.

Anyway, I agree with you that it might not be the best fit for that thread and I'm glad you made this post, as I'm interested to hear what other mefites have to say about the metaphor.
posted by Kwine at 1:02 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Then don't use it.

Really? Does this apply to other phrases that people find offensive? For instance, if it were the case that I didn't loathe the n-word (for the record: I do loathe it), would it be okay for me to use it cavalierly and expect everyone to be okay with the use of it in a public conversation?

Another data point of one: Good friend is a breast cancer survivor. She loathes the phrase and says her friends that are also survivors do as well. It's deeply offensive to them.
posted by jbickers at 1:04 PM on November 8, 2011 [4 favorites]


I lathe it.
posted by Eideteker at 1:05 PM on November 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'm quickly not liking MeTa's that begin with "I really loathe...". Every pet peeve doesn't merit a MeTa.

I´m going downstairs to make tea for 7 mins so I won´t be around. However I would like to see this lazy nitpicking go away.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 1:07 PM on November 8, 2011 [4 favorites]


I lathe it

lost their battle to cancer
ost their battle to cance
st their battle to canc
t their battle to can
 their battle to ca
their battle to c
heir battle to
eir battle to
lr battle tc

AGH! Fucking drill bit is busted!
posted by griphus at 1:08 PM on November 8, 2011 [18 favorites]


Some amount of understanding might be required on both sides of the fence. How you frame death tends to be deeply personal, and many people seem to benefit from the fairly militaristic language we like to steep it in. Other people do not benefit, and prefer other ways of framing it.

In a public forum, we should be careful about how our description of events colors them, especially when discussing touchy subjects like death. But the intent of the writer is almost never to belittle the suffering of cancer patients, deceased or otherwise.
posted by Stagger Lee at 1:14 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


At least the thread did not get derailed by bullshit about Ali was more popular than Frazier because his skin wasn't as dark!

(I always found that debate quite fascinating but it should definitely not be in a Frazier obituary thread.)

Battling cancer? The best quote was from a friend's physician to a friend:

It's going to get you. The goal here is to get the most pleasant life experience that you can. Maybe two years, maybe thirty; it's going to get you.
posted by bukvich at 1:14 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I agree, and I found the phrase especially distasteful in that FPP.
posted by cribcage at 1:15 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I much prefer the term "achieved death."
posted by villanelles at dawn at 1:18 PM on November 8, 2011 [13 favorites]


"...finally won his protracted battle against life."
posted by Wolfdog at 1:29 PM on November 8, 2011 [14 favorites]


I prefer: After a title bout, death is the new undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.
posted by found missing at 1:30 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Hi adamvasco. In a spirit of good will and compromise, can I just say that I certainly agree with the 'go away' part of your post.
posted by joannemullen at 1:31 PM on November 8, 2011


joannemullen, ladies and gentlemen!
posted by villanelles at dawn at 1:33 PM on November 8, 2011 [34 favorites]


I don't hate air travel with the intensity many do, but I do find it irritating when I'm behind someone who takes 10 hours to board the plane.
posted by Drastic at 1:33 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think he's just going to a private airport and breaking into a plane to cosplay or something.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 1:35 PM on November 8, 2011


I've never read the phrase 'lost their battle to cancer' and thought it implied the person was a 'loser', somehow worse than the 'winners' who 'beat cancer'. I am now, thanks to the in thread discussion and this subsequent MeTa aware that it is considered offensive and, though I don't know that I've ever used it in the past, will refrain from doing so in the future. As long as we're here discussing it (though, on preview the thread seems to have degenerated into a pile of shit, so this may be pointless), I have a couple of questions.

1) Would 'succumbed to their cancer' be considered similarly offensive?

2) Isn't the language of cancer, unlike say, old age or diabetes, one of conflict? Cancer is an 'invader'. There is a 'War on cancer'. One who is receiving treatment for cancer is said to be 'fighting it'.
posted by IanMorr at 1:38 PM on November 8, 2011


Sometimes the bad guy wins.
posted by owtytrof at 1:38 PM on November 8, 2011


Friend of mine died of cancer a couple of months ago. I posted a question to AskMe before she passed, and someone brought this up there. I was friendly to the person who mentioned it and let it drop. She meant well. I was upset that a friend was about to die, and didn't feel it was worth addressing.

Here's the problem: My friend used the phrase to me in conversation, discussing her own cancer and what others were going through. I asked her about it once and she said she didn't see any point in sugar coating things, glossing over them with euphemisms or wasting time on political correctness. She had cancer, had fought the disease as hard as she could for years and despite that, knew what the outcome would be and was honest with herself and others about it. In her mind, that left her the opportunity to pay attention to what mattered -- real battles rather than cosmetic ones.

Her family still uses the phrase to describe what she went through.

Your personal loathing of a phrase is fine, all well and good. But I am uncomfortable with your assumption that your personal preferences should be imposed on me or anyone else. I have no problem avoiding using the phrase in an FPP or to describe people I don't know. But excuse me, not everyone uses the phrase as a "lazy cliche." Sometimes, it's the best and most appropriate phrase one can possibly use.
posted by zarq at 1:41 PM on November 8, 2011 [9 favorites]


Would 'succumbed to their cancer' be considered similarly offensive?

I watched my mom die (quickly, thank god) from pancreatic cancer and basically "succumbing" is the only good word I can think of. There was no fight; just an attempt to keep living as comfortably and normally as possibly, with the comfort and normality being snatched away, more and more each day.

Also, cancer isn't an "invader." It's, well, us. You don't "fight" it, like you do a bacterial or viral infection, because there's nothing to get out of your system that wasn't there to begin with. It's just parts of our own bodies going from bad to worse. All the treatment can do is slow it down, or keep it from growing.
posted by griphus at 1:41 PM on November 8, 2011 [10 favorites]


I've always felt that the phrase has less to do with the person than how monstrous the disease is. It's not as if there's any dishonor in "losing a battle with cancer." It's said in sympathy, not derision. I think there's an awareness that cancer is pretty much of a gigantic bastard. Even when people "beat cancer," I think there's an implicit understanding that it's more about bravado than some affirmation of total victory. As Elvis Costello said, "Death wears a big hat, 'cause he's a big bloke."
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 1:44 PM on November 8, 2011


> I've always felt that the phrase has less to do with the person than how monstrous the disease is.

I suspect the phrase chafes at people because they don't wish to be defined by cancer. I don't have cancer but a plane could crash into the train I'm on tomorrow. I don't want to be defined by something deadly either. Their time was simply up, and they didn't really lose or win.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 1:48 PM on November 8, 2011


Let's cut joannemullen some slack here. She spends her days writing crap for idiots so she's probably habituated to using cliches.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:55 PM on November 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


"Tom Stoll died March 8, 2001
He won the battle."

The Final Journey of Tom Stoll (Part 1/2/3)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:57 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've often wondered why cancer seems to be the only disease that gets framed in battle terms. I'm sure people could google examples, but I don't feel that "lost their battle with pneumonia" or with HIV/AIDS, or any other diseases, is commonly used.

I suppose it needs to be a relatively longer running illness for which there are treatments, so heart attacks & other more or less instantaneous demises are ruled out, but if HIV/AIDS is used for comparison, isn't the usual framing "died of an AIDS-related illness"? In which case, why not the same with cancer, because in the end wouldn't it be the failure of a critical organ or system - eg in the case of liver cancer, "died of liver collapse"?
posted by UbuRoivas at 1:57 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


a friend of mine died when he lost his lifelong battle against not getting hit by a car
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 1:59 PM on November 8, 2011 [12 favorites]


UbuRoivas: " I suppose it needs to be a relatively longer running illness for which there are treatments, so heart attacks & other more or less instantaneous demises are ruled out, but if HIV/AIDS is used for comparison, isn't the usual framing "died of an AIDS-related illness"? In which case, why not the same with cancer, because in the end wouldn't it be the failure of a critical organ or system - eg in the case of liver cancer, "died of liver collapse"?"

The direct cause of the liver failure would be the cancer. In the case of AIDS, that disease is not the direct cause of death.

My father died of pneumonia. On his death certificate under cause of death, it says Rrespiratory Failure, MS-related. 'MS' meaning Multiple Sclerosis.
posted by zarq at 2:00 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


But...joannemullen didn't use the cliche "lost his battle." The phrase she used was "lost his fight" which (although cheesily) makes sense, 'cause Joe was, you know, a fighter.
posted by pecanpies at 2:02 PM on November 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


For instance, if it were the case that I didn't loathe the n-word (for the record: I do loathe it), would it be okay for me to use it cavalierly and expect everyone to be okay with the use of it in a public conversation?

Another data point of one: Good friend is a breast cancer survivor. She loathes the phrase and says her friends that are also survivors do as well. It's deeply offensive to them.


Your anecdotes do NOT apply to everyone. And conflating racial slurs with "battle with cancer" is beyond silly.
posted by IvoShandor at 2:02 PM on November 8, 2011 [4 favorites]


Sorry for the in-thread derail; I just don't get the insistence on forcing a groupthink opinion on everything. People are different. People see things differently. If you're going to get upset about the metaphors they use to discuss everyday events (and Lord knows I'm forever like, "He really niggered up that report"), it's going to be a long winter.
posted by yerfatma at 2:06 PM on November 8, 2011


I like (and said so in the thread) the phrase "winning the battle to go on to higher things." I first read it in an obituary when Poly Styrene died of breast cancer earlier this year, and I found it resonated greatly with me, even being the hard agnostic that I am.

I've talked elsewhere (both here on Mefi/Meta and on my own blog) about the terminology around cancer, and my objections to it as someone who's gone through it twice so far. Yes, it's a fucking SLOG to get through treatment; yes, it was painful and frightening and exhausting and even excruciating; yes, I'm glad I lived. The same can be said for many, many, many things that each of us face. This is our shared humanity. I am not privileged in my suffering because I went through cancer treatment and others have not; I am not privileged in my survival because my Type II cancer seems to have been beaten into remission for now, while other people I know who got diagnosed at the same time are now in Stage IV.

Cancer wasn't a lot of fun -- treatment sucked a great deal of the time, and at times was fucking brutal, and I am still dealing with side effects and pain, some of which may continue to improve and some of which may be with me for the rest of my life (however long or short my life turns out to be). Six months into remission, and I'm only now being able to see that beating cancer really did come at a price -- a price that has been hard to pay, at times, and which has caused me some real, deep grief. We wanted to make cancer go away, and it did. It just happened to take some parts of me with it.

But all that said, it wasn't the worst thing I've ever gone through, and I think I found a way to make a kind of sense (out of the essential senselessness) of my suffering as best I could, and be grateful for the love and kindness I was shown every step of the way by a lot of people. I found that there was great joy to be had. I found sublime moments of comfort and the tiniest glimpses of insight -- yes, even while experiencing intense physical and emotional discomfort. It made me consider how to die a good death: by living a good life, no matter its length. I am writing again. I am engaged in the world again. This is why, had I died rather than lived, I still would not have lost the battle. Everything I won was hard-won -- and none of it would have been taken away by my dying.

So I don't think objecting to the "lost the battle with cancer" is sugar-coating things. Cancer can be very ugly and painful, indeed, and when you're in the middle of it, it really is an extremely difficult struggle on many levels -- the pain, the exhaustion, the lack of certainty, the loss of control. But then, lots of life (and death) is like this, no? We all battle our foes, at whatever level and in whatever manifestation they occur. But cancer patients (as I've said before) are not the only ones in some battle against mortality itself, and that's where I (and lots of other cancer patients, I think) object to being cast in this image of Noble Fighting Warriors against the Evil Cancer Empire. Sure, we're going to die. We might die of the cancer, we might die of something else. So will everyone on the planet. We don't "lose" or "win" any more than the rest of you do by dying or staying alive another day. We just have a more up-close and personal relationship with the thing that might eventually cause our deaths. Is that frightening? Terrible? Tragic? Not really.

Isn't the language of cancer, unlike say, old age or diabetes, one of conflict? Cancer is an 'invader'. There is a 'War on cancer'. One who is receiving treatment for cancer is said to be 'fighting it'.

It's true that this is very much embedded into the entire discourse of the disease (including the idea of "survival"). There are some arguments about that, too.
posted by scody at 2:07 PM on November 8, 2011 [41 favorites]


a friend of mine died when he lost his lifelong battle against not getting hit by a car

You mean he lost his lifelong battle against getting hit by cars.
posted by John Cohen at 2:08 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I didn't like that someone said they didn't like the phrasing "lost the battle" and someone else said, "zomg wait till you have to deal with cancer" because, you know, the person who said they didn't like the phrasing HAS dealt with it. We shouldn't all sit and assume people comment from a place of no personal experience. I think you can sometimes tell when people speak from experience and when from idle curiosity or a desire to just spout an opinion. But we could do better in not just assuming.

But mostly I felt bad that both commenters had such a close personal experience with cancer.
posted by sweetkid at 2:09 PM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


We shouldn't all sit and assume people comment from a place of no personal experience.

I didn't. I didn't consider it at all because I wasn't annoyed by how they feel about the metaphor; that is completely their business regardless of experience. I was annoyed by the insistence we all need to stop using that metaphor. To me, that seems more like assuming they know better.
posted by yerfatma at 2:12 PM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


After my mother died of cancer I was irritated enough by the battle analogy that I went looking for other approaches. I can't find it right now, but one of the brain cancer organizations prefers to use the term "hero."

Heroes embark on quests voluntarily, or involuntarily. Heroes display courage in the face of fear. Heroes contemplate the notion of the greater good. Heroes can die, and still be heroes.

I've search/replaced it in my mind ever since.
posted by gnomeloaf at 2:16 PM on November 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


Some amount of understanding might be required on both sides of the fence. How you frame death tends to be deeply personal, and many people seem to benefit from the fairly militaristic language we like to steep it in. Other people do not benefit, and prefer other ways of framing it.

Yeah, and ultimately I think it's one of those things where because it's not really an established point of usage and folks who have strong feelings about it probably have those feelings because of difficult situations they've personally dealt with, it's understandable that folks don't necessarily know where each other are coming from. Like you say, understanding all around seems like the key thing.

can I just say that I certainly agree with the 'go away' part of your post.

This sort of thing sucks, please don't do it.
posted by cortex (staff) at 2:19 PM on November 8, 2011 [6 favorites]


I was annoyed by the insistence we all need to stop using that metaphor.

A woman I know (distantly) on the cancer board I'm on is presently dealing with fast-spreading mets to her liver, lungs, and spine. She's in her 30s, has a young child, and she has been dealing with her cancer for years. She has had all the standard treatments available, then she moved on to experimental treatments and clinical studies. Those didn't stop the cancer, either. Now, it is just a matter of how much time she has left.

She's doing her best to hold on through Christmas, to spend valuable time with her loved ones, to get some last (important) things done before she goes, to say some last (important) words before she falls silent. She's dying. You are more than free to call it losing if you want. But I won't.
posted by scody at 2:20 PM on November 8, 2011 [9 favorites]


And you are more than free to call it "winning the battle to go on to higher things."
posted by yerfatma at 2:24 PM on November 8, 2011


I was annoyed by the insistence we all need to stop using that metaphor. To me, that seems more like assuming they know better.

So I reread nickyskye's and scody's comments on the blue, and adamvasco's post here, and I'm not seeing any "insistence we all need to stop using that metaphor." The closest thing that comes to that is adamvasco's saying "...I would like to see this lazy cliche go away," which strikes me as less of a command and more of an opinion.

I understand -- no, really, I *do* understand -- that this is a fraught topic, and that nobody loves to have their word choices called on, especially when the words serve to bring comfort to the speaker. But I don't agree that "I really really hate these words" functions as a de facto "everyone must stop using them now."
posted by bakerina at 2:24 PM on November 8, 2011 [4 favorites]


Joe was diagnosed with liver cancer less than 2 months ago. There was no "battle" with cancer in his case. His fate was sealed. People can choose to use whatever euphemism/terminology that suits them best. This MeTa isn't going to change anything. Most of us personalize cancer so terms like battle seem appropriate to me.
posted by futz at 2:26 PM on November 8, 2011


Do we ALL get to choose a phrase we don't like and then ban it forever from MetaFilter. 'Cuz, if we do, I want some time to mull this over, I wanna make it worthwhile!
posted by HuronBob at 2:31 PM on November 8, 2011


I much prefer the term "achieved death."

ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED: Eternal Rest.
posted by Eideteker at 2:37 PM on November 8, 2011 [9 favorites]


...but regrouped and went on to win the longer war against the rest of the signs of the zodiac.
posted by Abiezer at 2:38 PM on November 8, 2011 [5 favorites]


I was annoyed by the insistence we all need to stop using that metaphor. To me, that seems more like assuming they know better.

Was this something that was deleted already? 'Cause I'm not seeing it.
posted by oneirodynia at 2:42 PM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


I wish more obituaries would acknowledge when someone is killed by death.
posted by ignignokt at 2:49 PM on November 8, 2011


Hypoxia is battling us all.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 2:50 PM on November 8, 2011


"Lost their battle to cancer" is, imo, trite and a cliche. Among the things that makes it loathsome to me is that it targets people with cancer as having lost the battle. Why are all the other illnesses people struggle to survive not deemed to have lost the battle when they die?

Number of deaths for leading causes of death
Heart disease: 616,067
Cancer: 562,875
Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 135,952
Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 127,924
Accidents (unintentional injuries): 123,706
Alzheimer's disease: 74,632
Diabetes: 71,382
Influenza and Pneumonia: 52,717
Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 46,448
Septicemia: 34,828


Those are US statistics.

And, to a boxer, Joe Frazier, it seems to me to add an insult to his obituary.

Thanks adamvasco for standing up on behalf of the MeFites dealing with cancer who strongly dislike this cliche. I really appreciate it.
posted by nickyskye at 2:51 PM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


Do we ALL get to choose a phrase we don't like and then ban it forever from MetaFilter.

No, but it's perfectly okay to say 'Hey, I don't like that phrase and here's why'. At that point, people can read your argument and decide to modify their behavior, or decide they will go on using it. Personally, I've decided to stop using the phrase under discussion. Others have decided they are going to keep using it, I'm not going to police their use of it. I understand they disagree with those who are offended and I think I understand why they disagree, but in my case it costs me nothing to stop using it. I had no idea it bothered people, I've no real need to use it and I thought of a perfectly acceptable substitute within a few seconds, so why continue using it now that the fact it is problematic has been brought to my attention?
posted by IanMorr at 2:54 PM on November 8, 2011 [7 favorites]


I actually like cliches, because they make the plain statement they're euphemising sound new and vivid again.
posted by facetious at 2:56 PM on November 8, 2011


bakerina: " So I reread nickyskye's and scody's comments on the blue, and adamvasco's post here, and I'm not seeing any "insistence we all need to stop using that metaphor." The closest thing that comes to that is adamvasco's saying "...I would like to see this lazy cliche go away," which strikes me as less of a command and more of an opinion.

I understand -- no, really, I *do* understand -- that this is a fraught topic, and that nobody loves to have their word choices called on, especially when the words serve to bring comfort to the speaker. But I don't agree that "I really really hate these words" functions as a de facto "everyone must stop using them now."
"

I reread the post and you're right. Thanks for that, because I would not have noticed it otherwise.

I do not like defending the use of a phrase that upsets some people. But I think it's worth noting that not everyone feels the same way about it, and they have their reasons.
posted by zarq at 3:01 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I hate that phrase, too - my dad died last year after his colon cancer came back with a vengeance. I also detest the cliched "in our thoughts and prayers."

He and I had often discussed (prior to and during his illness) that we'd love to have our obituaries overtly mocking the certain form found in newspapers along the lines of "...left this earth and was welcomed into the loving arms of Jesus."

The rest of my family does not share this dark sense of humor, though, so when they said silly things like "I'm so glad he has a place waiting for him in Heaven" (my uncle) I just went out and visited the pop machine for a while.

I know he didn't "lose" any battle, and that's good enough for me.
posted by HopperFan at 3:07 PM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


So whenever I heard someone mention it when discussing him, I made a point of saying "No, he kicked the shit outta that cancer for exactly as long as he felt like it. Then he died to spite the cancer."

I find that phrasing far more offensive than any battle analogy. My mother didn't struggle against her cancer as long as she "felt like it" and she didn't die leaving me motherless at 24 because she wanted to "spite the cancer".

My mother fought cancer, which is the word she used for it. Actually "fight this goddamn disease" was her terminology. I regret that other people find this phrasing distasteful, and I try to remember not to use it to describe anybody else's experience, but when I do use it I am quoting my mother who lived with and fought against cancer for 6 years before she lost the fight and died.

Personally, the phrase "passed away" puts my teeth on edge, but I don't try to tell others they ought to stop using it.
posted by Lexica at 3:19 PM on November 8, 2011 [4 favorites]


My preferred terminology.

Joe Frazier has breathed his last breath and thrown his last punch; he is now training in that great big boxing gym up in the sky.

I remember one time an acquaintance getting almost violently disturbed with me when I referred to a recently deceased mutual acquaintance as having "croaked". Now where is that evil metafilter person who posted a youtube of Amy Winehouse stumbling drunk around the stage in the Amy Winehouse obituary thread? That was fucking crass.
posted by bukvich at 3:26 PM on November 8, 2011


This issue was raised in my awareness for the first time when I heard Christopher Hitchens talk about it. It was only a week or two after he started chemo, and I'll paraphrase the sentiment I understood from that talk. He basically said that he felt like sitting in a chair, having this poison drain into you from a bag felt like the opposite of fighting. That it was incredibly passive, and he disliked the analogy.

This is of course one anecdote and whatnot, this discussion just made me think of it.

For me, this relates to the descriptors surrounding sexual trauma. It is very important to me, and actually every other rape survivor I know, to frame it as survival (survivor) and not victimization (victim). It probably isn't as important to people that don't have cancer, or sexual abuse history, to consider that framing in the moment, or when you aren't explicitly aware of speaking to people with that history.

So it seems pretty intuitive that the people who are most likely to react to a different framing than the one they are comfortable with are more likely to be people who directly or tangentially have been affected by the experience being described. And that, again most naturally, is going to heat up and affect the reactions expressed. Survivors, or the family of, are self-selecting a response.

The thing is though....there's a continuum problem. With sexual abuse, you can be a survivor for as long as you live. You never really have to try and rhetorically "flip" that designation.

With cancer, you can be a survivor and never have a recurrence, or you can be currently surviving it until it kills you. There's not an appropriate rhetorical assignation on the other end of the spectrum.

And because we have that intuitive desire to inform the framing in a proactive, person-positive manner, most folks quite naturally choose "fighting" as the framing for a person diagnosed with cancer. I agree with Mr. Hitchens and others here that fighting doesn't feel like quite the right framing, most especially because the natural rhetorical flipside is "losing the fight". But again, framing people as "cancer victims" again feels somehow degrading or dispiriting, and doesn't feel right either.

It's a rich concept to try and unpack, and I think maybe the ultimate answer is that we need a new framing, or to cure all cancer. I don't know what a better framing might be, and I don't know how to cure cancer, so I guess that's all for this comment, save to say...

fuck cancer.
posted by lazaruslong at 3:28 PM on November 8, 2011 [4 favorites]


Lexica, please don't take it personally. My brother's relationship to his family, friends and world were such that it helped frame his situation. I needed to know that he fought hard, and I needed to feel as though his battle wasn't in vain (even if it was). I wouldn't use this phrasing for anyone else really. I personally just dislike the "lost" part.
posted by Perthuz at 3:29 PM on November 8, 2011


I think it's interesting that this use of bellicist metaphors when dealing with disease seems to be an anglo saxon thing - probably american. I may be wrong but I don't see it that often in southern european newspapers unless it's a translation of the american headline. Will power in general doesn't seem to come much into play when dealing with disease where I come from. A reflex of the culture?

The best I've read about this subject was this in the Guardian:

The stress on cancer patients' "bravery" and "courage" implies that if you can't "conquer" your cancer, there's something wrong with you, some weakness or flaw. If your cancer progresses rapidly, is it your fault? Does it reflect some failure of willpower?

In blaming the victim, the ideology attached to cancer mirrors the bootstrap individualism of the neoliberal order, in which the poor are poor because of their own weaknesses – and "failure" and "success" become the ultimate duality, dished out according to individual merit.

It also reinforces the demand on patients for uncomplaining stoicism, which in many cases is why they are in bad shape in the first place. Late diagnosis leads to tens of thousands of avoidable deaths in the UK each year. For those who have been diagnosed it remains a barrier to effective treatment. The free flow of information between patient and doctor is a scientific necessity, and a reluctance to complain inhibits it.

Earlier this year Barack Obama vowed to "launch a new effort to conquer a disease that has touched the life of nearly every American". In so doing, he was intensifying and expanding a "war on cancer" first declared by Richard Nixon in 1971. But this "war" is as mislabelled and misconceived as the "war on terror" or the "war on drugs".

For a start, why must every concerted effort be likened to warfare? Is this the only way we are able to describe human co-operation in pursuit of a common goal? And who are the enemies in this war? Cancer cells may be "malignant" but they are not malevolent. Like the wars on "drugs" and "terror", the war on cancer misapplies the martial metaphor to dangerous effect. It simplifies a complex and daunting phenomenon – making it ripe for political and financial exploitation.


etc, etc
posted by lucia__is__dada at 3:33 PM on November 8, 2011 [15 favorites]


Perthuz — no hard feelings. I think this is an example of how phrasing that feels just right to one person's situation and experience can be exactly wrong for a different person, and vice versa.

And to echo what lazaruslong said, fuck cancer.
posted by Lexica at 3:38 PM on November 8, 2011


Cancer is personal. Rather than rant and run (I loathe X, and I won't be around to discuss it for Y hours), if might have helped this conversation if you had approached those of us who do use the phrase not with raspberries (lazy cliche users!) but with honest curiosity.

Sort of a:

I loathe the way people say "lost the battle with cancer" because of Y. But I see that several folks are using it. Several folks, why do you use the phrasing that way? Why is this phrasing meaningful to you? I'm assuming good faith, and that it isn't because you all are just people who are thoughtless enough to talk about something that may be deeply personal and use the phrase the way I see it, as a 'lazy cliche'.

And then those of us who use it could tell you why we use it. And how why the phrase 'lost the battle to cancer' isn't always used because we're too lazy to be thoughtful about our word choice.

But you know, it doesn't strike me that you're trying to have a good faith conversation, adamvasco. So with sincerity, I hope your sort of mini-grar meta about the world not being the way you'd like it to be helped you in some way. Because it certainly wasn't particularly considerate of anyone else who does use the phrase, finds it personally meaningful, and considers it neither a cliche, nor lazy.
posted by anitanita at 4:10 PM on November 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


You are more than free to call it losing if you want.

I was going to let this lie until tomorrow at least because I've been drinking, but if it helps at all, I want to make clear that I'm not seeing/ using the words "fight", "battle", etc. in the same way you are, as best as I can tell. I see it more like Cú Chulainn fighting the waves: there is no chance he would ever win, but I think more, not less, of him* for the attempt. We all lose the [whatever] with mortality; there's no shame in it. It's not like "fighting" City Hall or whatever mortal enemy you might choose. It's just there. Pick any old metaphor you like, sooner or later, for whatever reason, you (and I) won't be around. I can't see a moral failing in that; we all have expiration dates.

As far as one thinks about or admires a fictional being, Captain America to one side.
posted by yerfatma at 4:16 PM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's just there. Pick any old metaphor you like, sooner or later, for whatever reason, you (and I) won't be around. I can't see a moral failing in that; we all have expiration dates.

Interestingly (and I am not being sarcastic), that was exactly the point I was trying to make, though you've expressed it in a much pithier manner (and extra points for the nice Cúchulainn reference, as I have always been fond of him myself, and not just because of the Pogues song).

You are absolutely right that every one of us has an expiration date, cancer or not. Every one of us is mortal, cancer or not. Every one of us dies (as nicky says above, aside from the strangely immortal jellyfish), whether slowly and in great pain or peacefully in the blink of an eye. But culturally, it is almost exclusively cancer patients for whom dying is automatically equated with "losing the battle"; it's extremely unusual (not unheard of, but unusual -- I see it occasionally with diabetes, but that's about it) to hear about anyone "losing the battle" when they die of virtually anything else. Cancer is framed as a special case, in which some people "win" and some people "lose," in large part because of the "war on cancer" language of the past 30-40 years. That's the objection, and that's why plenty of people actually find the term loaded at best and offensive (if unintentionally so) at worst.

We're all going to die. But I would say that the language of "losing the battle with cancer" actually serves to obscure this fact, not illuminate it. The only battle Joe Frazier can be said to have lost today is the same battle -- if that's what we want to think of it -- that every one of us will lose, sooner or later. Because if he'd "won" his battle with cancer, he'd still eventually die anyway. And we'd grieve his passing either way. Because Joe Frazier was awesome, and he was a warrior -- cancer or no damn cancer.
posted by scody at 5:02 PM on November 8, 2011 [7 favorites]


"Cancer is personal. Rather than rant and run (I loathe X, and I won't be around to discuss it for Y hours), it might have helped this conversation if you had approached those of us who do use the phrase not with raspberries (lazy cliche users!) but with honest curiosity. "

This, exactly. In my father's obituary, I wrote "after a short, gutsy battle with cancer." Well, fine, by the standards of nit-picking semanticists, my dad didn't lose his battle to cancer - he was unconscious by the time we had a diagnosis, and he died a couple weeks later. He might well have suspected he had cancer, but he didn't KNOW, so if we're going to use violent metaphors, he was strangled unconscious by a remorseless assailant who couldn't be dissuaded from finishing the work a few weeks later by gnawing out the vital blood vessels and airway of the neck. Are you happier "battle"-haters and cliche-avoiders, now that I've changed my story to appease your sensibilities?

I also use "passed away" in conversation because the circumstances of my mother's death, particularly, are so awful and gruesome, and I am so prone to over-the-top description, that I err on the side of delicacy.

On preview: scody, people who've died of complications of substance abuse or (other) severe mental illness are often described as having "lost their battles" with the illness.
posted by gingerest at 5:08 PM on November 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


lucia__is__dada Thanks for the excellent comment.
posted by nickyskye at 5:16 PM on November 8, 2011


I´m getting into an airplane for 10 hrs so I won´t be around.

I like that adamvasco has adopted George Carlin's "Get on the plane? Fuck you, I'm getting in the plane. There seems to be less wind in here."
posted by Horace Rumpole at 5:46 PM on November 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


scody, people who've died of complications of substance abuse or (other) severe mental illness are often described as having "lost their battles" with the illness.

That's an excellent point. I remember now that I saw that a lot when Amy Winehouse died, so thanks for the reminder.

I think there's a way in which that still underscores the idea that cancer gets "special case" status in the Mortality Olympics, and in which there are certain issues implicit in the language of "winning" vs. "losing" that are not present in the language we use in talking more generally about many (even most) other causes of death. Someone "losing the battle" with addiction carries pretty heavy cultural baggage with it, like it or not. So, too, does "losing the battle" with cancer, even if the cancer patient is frequently cast in a more noble light than the addict (unfairly or not). But we almost never talk of anyone losing their battle with congestive heart failure, or with gangrene, or with going through a windshield, or with old age, or with a respiratory infection, or with ALS, or with malaria, or with any of the countless other ways people die, many of them equally (if not more so) as painful as dying from cancer. Why?

This is truly not to say that I don't think you or your family have the right to talk about your dad's cancer and death in whatever terms feel right for you; of course I think you do, and I've certainly referred to my own "battle" with cancer on occasion, and I certainly don't mean to imply that I speak for everyone with cancer (it's a very real debate on the cancer board where I post; some object strenuously the terminology, some find comfort/truth in it, and some find themselves somewhere in the middle.) It's obviously part of the common parlance that's almost impossible not to pick up. But until obituaries really start using the phrase "lost the battle with [X]" for all causes of death as commonly as they use "passed away," it carries with it certain implications (about cancer, about disease in general, about mortality more generally still) that I think are worth examining on a cultural level.

Less than fifty years ago, cancer was barely even acknowledged in public discourse because it was considered such a shameful, repulsive disease. But the ways we could think and talk about the disease evolved. I don't think anyone is demanding that their sensibilities be appeased by suggesting that the way we think and talk about cancer can continue to evolve even now.
posted by scody at 6:54 PM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


adamvasco, I completely agree. It bothers me that people who die from cancer become "losers" when we rely on this terminology. What, if they'd just wanted to survive a little harder they could have beat it? That's just insulting. Plus to be fair, if you die the cancer dies too so I wouldn't say it's a loss so much as a tie.
posted by Go Banana at 7:04 PM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


What, if they'd just wanted to survive a little harder they could have beat it? That's just insulting. Plus to be fair, if you die the cancer dies too so I wouldn't say it's a loss so much as a tie.

Nope, my Mom was a complete loser who didn't try hard enough. Also, you are a brilliant person.
posted by yerfatma at 7:08 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


cancer was barely even acknowledged in public discourse because it was considered such a shameful, repulsive disease.

Shameful? Really? Why?
posted by yerfatma at 7:11 PM on November 8, 2011


I'm sorry, scody, I didn't mean to call you out. Also I posted - oh, so embarrassing because I know better, damn it - before I dug up the relevant perspectives in the original Frazier thread. You are being a lot more gracious than I was. Grief makes me stupid. Which is no excuse because you have every right to grieve, too! As does everyone else who feels strongly about this because they are living with cancer or affected by cancer. I was wrong to characterize anyone as a drive-by semanticist.

Henceforth I promise to think really hard about whether I need to before I use the metaphor, and I will try hard not to be a touchy exceptionalist. Can we all get behind a good "Fuck cancer" and maybe a chorus of "Losing people we love is really hard"?
posted by gingerest at 7:12 PM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think this is an example of how phrasing that feels just right to one person's situation and experience can be exactly wrong for a different person, and vice versa.

My mother, who has a terminal kind of cancer but is doing okay right now, has threatened us all that if we use any reworking of the phrase "battle with cancer" in her obit she will haunt us from the grave. I think it's really different for different people but cancer has a way of making people sort of humorless about some things, sometimes.

Also, you are a brilliant person.

I would like to suggest that if you have been drinking and this is the path you are chosing to go down that maybe you go enjoy your drink. I was with you up to the wave part.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:30 PM on November 8, 2011 [4 favorites]


Shameful? Really? Why?

Not shameful as in "it's your fault you got it" (though that's part of the underlying implications of lung cancer, and don't forget as recently as the 1980s there was talk of AIDS as "the gay cancer"), necessarily, but more in an unspeakable, taboo way. Being diagnosed with cancer was largely considered a death sentence, its causes and mechanisms were often not well understood (including whether it was contagious or not), it involves body parts and organ system that were often considered beyond the pale of public discussion (it was shocking when Betty Ford spoke openly about having breast cancer), and until chemotherapy and radiation became widespread, surgery was pretty much the only treatment (and that surgery was often much more radical than it is today; women with breast cancer, for example, not only had one or both breasts removed, but could face having their lymph nodes and chest muscles removed as well).
posted by scody at 7:33 PM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


oh, and gingerest: I am opening a bottle of wine right now and raise a glass to you, and will start off the first chorus of "fuck cancer" for the night. Salut!
posted by scody at 7:35 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Shameful? Really? Why?

A good AskMetaFilter post/thread on that topic.
posted by nickyskye at 7:38 PM on November 8, 2011


Damn. I sense and feel a lot of hurt in this thread. Can we just let this go? Close this up? It certainly isn't making me feel very good right now.
posted by IvoShandor at 7:59 PM on November 8, 2011


It bothers me that people who die from cancer become "losers" when we rely on this terminology.

In whose view, exactly? Because I have used that apparently unforgivable phrase myself, and I had no clue that I was calling my dead aunt a loser when I mourned her. Thanks for letting me know what a righteous dick I've been.
posted by palomar at 8:00 PM on November 8, 2011


People just have a hard time saying the word "died", that's all. My mom died from cancer, it's hard to say it out loud, even now; but I have never said "she lost her battle with cancer"; because, you know, she died because of it.
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 8:05 PM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


I've lost a fair amount of loved ones to cancer, and I have friends dealing with it now. I understand completely that it is hard to cope with the death of a loved one, and that hearing trite euphemisms can enrage you like nothing else. BEEN THERE, you guys. What I wish, more than anything, is that people would stop being all goddamned pissed off at other people for using a phrase that they personally do not like. For fuck's sake, don't equate it with racial slurs, don't play the cutesy literal interpretation card by insinuating that saying someone "lost a battle" means you're calling that person a loser. Exhibit some of the empathy and kindness you demand from others.

Fuck, you guys. Is it that important to score your points about how correct and perfect you are in your speech and your thoughts at all times? Does it feel that good to make sure anyone who uses your pet hated phrase feels as shitty as possible about it? I sure hope so! Otherwise, what a waste of a thread.
posted by palomar at 8:13 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Does it feel that good to make sure anyone who uses your pet hated phrase feels as shitty as possible about it?

Who's trying to make anyone feel shitty? I'm someone who doesn't personally like this phrase, and I think it's worth reconsidering, and yet I feel I've had a good-faith exchange with several people in this thread who disagree with me, and I hope I've got a better sense of where they're coming from. I don't think they should feel bad for anything, and I don't think I (or nickyskye, or adamvasco, or anyone else) should either.
posted by scody at 8:36 PM on November 8, 2011 [5 favorites]


I think it's the continued insistence in seeing use of the phrase "lost their battle" as a statement that the deceased is a loser that is really sticking in my craw.
posted by palomar at 8:48 PM on November 8, 2011


palomar, it is possible to loathe a phrase and not be pissed off at the people using it! One can loathe something without being "enraged".

Racial slurs? What? Disliking a trite cliche does not mean it's being cutesy or literal. And why is not liking the cliche, "lost the battle to cancer" not exhibiting empathy?

I do not want to have the term be used when I die of the 3 cancers I'm dealing with, nor do I like the term used for my dear father who died of cancer, nor my dear aunt, nor my sister-in-law's mother, nor a friend who died this September of AIDS related cancer complications.

It seems to me grossly disrespectful and an injustice, that only those who die by cancer but not any other disease, are said to have "lost the battle". In my opinion the phrase is disrespectful to the person who died because, when a person has "lost a battle", it means they are a loser. That is the definition of the term, to lose, having lost.

All the other illnesses and diseases that cause people to die do not prompt those who are grieving to say the person lost the battle and I think people who die of cancer deserve the same respect as the other people who die of other illnesses.

Here's an example form today's New York Times of a typical obituary, death by an illness other than cancer: Dr. David C. Utz, a prominent urological surgeon at the Mayo Clinic who drew wide attention when he performed prostate surgery on President Ronald Reagan in 1987, died on Oct. 30 in Scottsdale, Ariz. He was 87.

The cause was congestive heart failure, his son William said.


That's it, the cause was xxxx. Why is it when a person dies of cancer the ill person is responsible for losing the battle with the illness rather than it being simply stated, "the cause was cancer"?
posted by nickyskye at 8:51 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


All the other illnesses and diseases that cause people to die do not prompt those who are grieving to say the person lost the battle and I think people who die of cancer deserve the same respect as the other people who die of other illnesses.

I can see why some people are getting upset. The implication that saying "lost the battle" is somehow not showing respect to the deceased is going to piss people off because each person is going to characterize it in their own way, and no one should sit around implying that they are somehow wrong, semantically. Other diseases, as pointed out above, most specifically substance abuse, but sometimes other mental illnesses are also referred to in a similar manner.

This is why I suggested that this be closed up, because it's going nowhere, and fast. The only thing that's going to happen here is people's feelings are going to be hurt.

So can we? Close this up? Please?
posted by IvoShandor at 9:00 PM on November 8, 2011


nickyskye, upthread someone likened using the phrase "lost their battle with cancer" to dropping the n-bomb.

I'm not a fan of the phrase, either. Have I used it? Sure. Because I was fucking grieving and couldn't find the perfect, eloquent words I might have wanted to say. Was I calling the person I mourned a loser? No, and I really fucking resent the implication that by using words YOU don't like, that I am disrespecting someone I loved. I don't really appreciate that my character is being negatively judged because I didn't use the right words when I mourned.

That is what I meant by empathy. I have lost loved ones to cancer. I am staring down that shitty barrel again right now. Maybe you could look past your opinion of a phrase and try having empathy for the person using it. Are they talking about someone they cared about who died? Hey, maybe they're struggling with their grief and don't have the right words to please you in their expression of sorrow.

FYI, I have TOTALLY heard the battle analogy in reference to other illnesses. Just because you personally haven't, doesn't mean it doesn't happen.
posted by palomar at 9:01 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


when a person has "lost a battle", it means they are a loser. That is the definition of the term, to lose, having lost.

This is very much a matter of personal orientation and perspective. To you and some others, somebody who loses is "a loser". To me and to a number of others, somebody who loses is "somebody who has lost", not "a loser".

Saying somebody has lost is a statement. Calling someone "a loser" is a character judgment.
posted by Lexica at 9:10 PM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


Nobody is asking you to be perfect or use only perfectly eloquent words. Or blaming you! The phrase is, imo, disrespectful. Not you.

It's NOT a criticism of people grieving for God's sake. It's an examination of the cliche.

Its main use is reserved for those who die of cancer.
posted by nickyskye at 9:11 PM on November 8, 2011


In your examination of the cliche, you've presented the idea that saying "lost their battle" is calling that person a loser.

Now, a phrase can't say itself. So where are you laying blame?
posted by palomar at 9:18 PM on November 8, 2011


I lost a necklace that week. Does saying that mean I'm calling myself a loser?
posted by palomar at 9:20 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


This turn of phrase bugs me too. Though, if someone going through cancer wants to speak of it as a fight, that's totally fair enough. In this regard, I put it in similar category to criticizing one's mother, reclamation of slurs, and mockery -- I can do it for myself or my people, but outsiders should use caution.

Worth noting that even those who are passionately offended by the "lost the battle to cancer" sentiments don't generally aim their scorn at the people using these phrases or their sincerity, the vitriol is generally for the cliche itself.

And when you have cancer or are otherwise dealing with it very very up close, you get a big dose of tone-deaf cliches and fear and downright odd assertions, so yeah, the deeper implications of euphemisms can start to hit pretty close to home.
posted by desuetude at 10:04 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


How about instead we say "he was betrayed by his liver".

He was strong. He was a fighter. But he trusted his liver to have his back, and it let him down.
posted by team lowkey at 10:18 PM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


In this thread I've seen several people who have had cancer themselves or been seriously affected by loved ones' illnesses say they'd prefer it if people didn't use the "lost their battle with cancer" metaphor. There are many reasons for this, which are outlined above.

If you've used the metaphor in the past, it's OK. Really, it is. You didn't know. No one is trying to say you are a horrible person for using this metaphor in the past. It's really not something you need to defend.
posted by grouse at 10:23 PM on November 8, 2011 [5 favorites]


... after a futile six year battle with cancer.
posted by philip-random at 10:40 PM on November 8, 2011


I am a cancer survivor (so far!) and I am not a fan of this phrase, partly for reasons outlined in lucia__is__dada's post. I spoke to a woman whose sister died from cancer and she seemed convinced that if her sister had just been more positive about her life, she would never have gotten cancer in the first place. I feel like the winner versus loser thing is an actual way that people understand it, like there really is a sense of personal responsibility there. That bothers me.

I've also got to confess that I normally completely avoid threads and discussions about cancer, period, online and off, so it could also be my generalized aversion to the subject matter talking. People die and suffer in many ways, but I do think cancer is frightening and tragic. I don't think equal amounts of tragedy elsewhere preclude this illness from being tragic. While at an infusion center I first heard, then saw a woman in her mid thirties, whom the rest of us patients were all familiar with from prior visits, receive the news that she would not live for more than a few weeks. I can't relate the atmosphere of raw pain in that room-- both in her and in the rest of us-- when it really sunk in and she started weeping. I don't know. To win, to lose, that's something I apply to sports, or video games. I guess everyone feels different about how seriously you should take cancer as an illness, versus other illnesses, but I thought it was quite nightmarish and I had no idea how easy my life had been before that time. Every time someone cracks a joke about it or applies the win/lose metaphor I feel like I'm living out a movie script penned by a supremely dark-humored writer.

That's probably over-sharing, and I guess I might not be looking at things in the healthiest way. Anyway, for what it's worth, I agree with grouse that it doesn't make you some kind of monster if you've used that turn of phrase before, so there's no reason for anyone to actually get mad about it-- beyond the factor of grief of course, which can and will explain pretty much any behavior.

But yeah, it's not something I especially like to hear or read.
posted by the liquid oxygen at 12:09 AM on November 9, 2011 [6 favorites]


It seems to me that there's a fundamental contempt for people who lose at things underlying at least part of the objection to this phrase. I don't use it, mostly because "died" just seems truer, but it never occurred to me to be bothered that other people do on behalf of my father, who died of cancer when I was a teenager. The idea that my father could ever be thought to be less of a beautiful, brilliant, hilarious, strange, gentle, supersonic rock star of a man just because in spite of everything this brutal illness slowly destroyed him, just because he "lost" to it no matter how hard he tried, is much more offensive to me than the notion that he lost at something in the first place.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 8:29 AM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Really? Does this apply to other phrases that people find offensive? For instance, if it were the case that I didn't loathe the n-word (for the record: I do loathe it), would it be okay for me to use it cavalierly and expect everyone to be okay with the use of it in a public conversation?

In Michigan, yes. Though you would probably need to demonstrate you really didn't loathe the word and weren't deliberately using a word that you did loathe.
posted by Naberius at 9:55 AM on November 9, 2011


It seems to me that there's a fundamental contempt for people who lose at things underlying at least part of the objection to this phrase.

I don't think that those of us here who prefer not to use the phrase are the ones who hold "people who lose at things" in contempt. Quite the contrary. The contempt for losing at things comes from our culture -- the same "stay young/live forever" culture that generally holds aging in contempt, and that operates with a kind of denial-of-mortality in general (which, as a side note, is built into some of the issues of end-of-life medical care in this culture).

I don't think there's any shame in "losing" (whether literally or figuratively) -- but the fact is, I don't think of "dying" as "losing" in the first place. We are all going to die, whether from cancer or not. Cancer patients are not soldiers in a battle with mortality that non-cancer patients are exempt from. There is no shame in dying, no matter how it comes about. There's no shame in it if you go down fighting a brutal disease or if you slip away peacefully. Rage against the dying of the light... or not. I hold neither in contempt. If my cancer comes back and if it's terminal, then I'll treat it as long as treatment extends my life at the level of quality that I want to live at, and then -- as much as it might be in my control -- I'll stop and, eventually, go. I refuse to call that "losing the battle" -- not because I believe losing is shameful (because I don't), and not because I don't think having cancer isn't hard (because it is) and not because I don't think it's gut-wrenching for the surviving friends and family (because I can only imagine that). I reject the construct of "losing the battle" not because I hold either people who lose (generally) or people who die of cancer (specifically) in contempt, but precisely the opposite: because I acknowledge and respect what it takes to endure cancer, for however long that endurance might take and for whatever the ultimate outcome is (i.e., if the cancer patient dies of cancer or lives long enough to die of something else).

That said, I realize from reading this thread that I think there's quite a big difference in the use of the phrase based on whether it's coming from people who've actually been through it one way or another -- such as the people here who have posted so honestly and starkly about watching one of their parents die -- as opposed to the more generalized use of it culturally.

When someone talks about watching their parent struggle to the end of their life with treatment and with the dying process itself, I have no problem with anyone using whatever words they need to use to describe what is ultimately an indescribable pain, and to honor the loved one they miss and grieve.

But when a headline writer (for example) uses it because that's the obligatory way to say "died of cancer" in a way that's rarely deployed for any other type of death, it's lazy and a cliche, and I don't think it particularly honors anyone's life, death, or struggles in between.
posted by scody at 10:18 AM on November 9, 2011 [3 favorites]


This is a hard thread to read, what with the flippant comments and defensiveness.

My two year old has cancer, and she is not winning, nor losing. She is living her life fully, in the moment, curious, passionate, lovingly defiant. She suffers in treatment and she is joyful in remission, and she only looks forward, and that from the moment. She does not even know she is sick. For all she knows, all kids have tubes sticking out of them or puke up mucous.

The disease is fighting her, perhaps.

It's really hard to avoid this cliche and I am sure I have fallen into it myself on many occasions, but when I dwell on it, yes, language makes a difference and if Little C. should not make it, it will not be because she is a loser, but because something much larger than her was overwhelming, and irresistable, and I sense she will be always, always in the "moment of the moment".

It is a penetrating lesson of life that I learn from her - don't look back, attend to the present for none of us are guaranteed a tomorrow - there may well be that ragged rock.


For our own past is covered by the currents of action,
But the torment of others remains an experience
Unqualified, unworn by subsequent attrition.
People change, and smile: but the agony abides.
Time the destroyer is time the preserver,
Like the river with its cargo of dead negroes, cows and chicken coops,
The bitter apple, and the bite in the apple.
And the ragged rock in the restless waters,
Waves wash over it, fogs conceal it;
On a halcyon day it is merely a monument,
In navigable weather it is always a seamark
To lay a course by, but in the sombre season
Or the sudden fury, is what it always was.

posted by Rumple at 11:36 AM on November 9, 2011 [6 favorites]


She is living her life fully, in the moment, curious, passionate, lovingly defiant.

I'm really, really sorry and I hope for the best for you.
posted by yerfatma at 1:09 PM on November 9, 2011


Thanks, yerfatma. We're optimistic, and right now she is just sailing along beautifully, so happy and alive. Heading to the beach tomorrow for a three day weekend of sandcastles and crabs. Life is good.
posted by Rumple at 1:46 PM on November 9, 2011 [5 favorites]


Personally, I find the phrase "lost their battle with cancer" distasteful, and more than a bit insulting.

Cancer is an indifferent menace. Phrasing it in terms of 'winning' and 'losing' doesn't pay any respect to those people whom cancer kills.

Moreover, having a 'fight' or 'battle' against cancer implies that there is a certain amount of will involved, that if you just want it badly enough, that you can 'win'.

That in turns implies that those who have died of cancer lacked the strength of will that a survivor has -- and that is absolutely not true, since cancer is an indifferent menace.

It's science's best guess against a luck of the draw. That's not a battle. That's not wanting it more. That's not 'winners' and 'losers'. It's a luck of the draw against something we don't fully understand, much less control.
posted by Capt. Renault at 1:56 PM on November 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


Thanks for that, scody. I think you're right. I can't blame people who don't like the phrase for the attitudes that make it objectionable - though I'm still not at all ready to go along with those attitudes. (I barely feel qualified to talk about it, anyway. Watching somebody you love be ill is horrible but it still isn't the same as being ill yourself.) Also, maybe we really shouldn't think of illness as combat, but I hope you know I'm rooting for you all the same. Same goes for Rumple's daughter, and anyone faced with things like this.

Though on preview, Capt. Renault, that's sort of what I'm talking about. I don't believe that losing a battle, even a figurative one, even a non-figurative one, implies anything about anything. It doesn't mean you just "didn't want it enough" (ugh), and it certainly doesn't make you a less worthy human being. It's just a thing that happens, like anything is.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 2:14 PM on November 9, 2011


I hate it when I and others try really hard to parse out a difficult and rich concept in a long comment and then people jump in saying the same baloney that was just addressed. It sometimes feels like we never make progress.
posted by lazaruslong at 2:32 PM on November 9, 2011 [4 favorites]


Eh, I just finished my 4th bout, and although I used to hate that phrase too, I gotta say, this one was a true slugfest. All reports and prognosis: excellent. So right at this moment, I feel like a winner, I do.
posted by thinkpiece at 3:49 PM on November 9, 2011 [6 favorites]


Anyone else worried about the poster's plane?
posted by yerfatma at 6:59 PM on November 9, 2011


Barbara Ehrenreich: Smile! You've got cancer
posted by homunculus at 8:20 PM on November 9, 2011


This issue was raised in my awareness for the first time when I heard Christopher Hitchens talk about it. It was only a week or two after he started chemo, and I'll paraphrase the sentiment I understood from that talk. He basically said that he felt like sitting in a chair, having this poison drain into you from a bag felt like the opposite of fighting. That it was incredibly passive, and he disliked the analogy.

Here's what he wrote in Vanity Fair:
The bargaining stage, though. Maybe there’s a loophole here. The oncology bargain is that, in return for at least the chance of a few more useful years, you agree to submit to chemotherapy and then, if you are lucky with that, to radiation or even surgery. So here’s the wager: you stick around for a bit, but in return we are going to need some things from you. These things may include your taste buds, your ability to concentrate, your ability to digest, and the hair on your head. This certainly appears to be a reasonable trade. Unfortunately, it also involves confronting one of the most appealing clichés in our language. You’ve heard it all right. People don’t have cancer: they are reported to be battling cancer. No well-wisher omits the combative image: You can beat this. It’s even in obituaries for cancer losers, as if one might reasonably say of someone that they died after a long and brave struggle with mortality. You don’t hear it about long-term sufferers from heart disease or kidney failure.

Myself, I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient. Allow me to inform you, though, that when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don’t read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.
posted by homunculus at 8:33 PM on November 9, 2011 [4 favorites]


I'm fine thank you yerfatma
and about to get into another plane. This thread is now going along fine without my presence. It was only as politeness that I indicated that I wouldn't be around. Maybe some of you have a problem with that.
posted by adamvasco at 12:17 AM on November 10, 2011


Mmn, for me the fight wasn't the slash/burn/poison treatment routine -- 2x. It was fighting to stay in control, live parts of my "real" life without letting cancer or treatment dominate every waking and sleeping moment. To figure out how to have fun, still care about things outside of myself and cancer, notice when my strength was high and get myself up and out and into the world, despite the bald head, pale aspect, slow-mo. The fight was to stay seen and known as who I am, with nothing whatsoever to do with cancer.
posted by thinkpiece at 4:03 AM on November 10, 2011


Monty Python does death. This clip has accompanied me in my thoughts all through cancer treatment. As The Grim Reaper remained a constant presence, I thought it best to be on comfortable terms with the reality.

I lost a necklace that week. Does saying that mean I'm calling myself a loser?

Not that you don't know the difference between a lost necklace and a lost battle. Lost in this case is a homonym.

To lose a necklace means to misplace a necklace.

To lose a battle means that one side has won the battle and the other side has lost the battle. That is the purpose of a battle, to fight to win, for one side to seek to defeat the other. One side is the winner of the battle and the other side is the loser of the battle. In the case of lost the battle to cancer, cancer is the winner of the battle and the person who died is the loser of the battle.

If the battle metaphor is to be used, then why is it not used for losing the battle to all types of illness?

> losing a battle... It's just a thing that happens, like anything is.

There's a difference between losing a battle and "just a thing that happens".

And then there is the word and the feeling of loss when a person one loves dies.

> We all lose the [whatever] with mortality; there's no shame in it.

Death is a cessation. There is no shame in that, so why is a shaming term for being defeated, ie losing the battle, used for those who die from having cancer?

homunculus, thank you for that brilliant Christopher Hitchens quotation. That is exactly how I felt and am amazed how precisely and well he articulated my every thought.
posted by nickyskye at 6:48 AM on November 10, 2011


It was only as politeness that I indicated that I wouldn't be around. Maybe some of you have a problem with that.

The motivation for politeness is totally great, but that's mostly unrelated to the practical fact that "here's a thing, and also I'm leaving" tends to be disruptive framing for a metatalk post and leaves nobody with any route to clarification on why you're posting. Not a gigantic deal or anything, but one of those situations where the better thing to do would have been to give making a metatalk post a pass entirely.

Maybe drop a note to one of the other folks in the thread and say "hey, I wonder if this should go to Metatalk but I need to get on a plane right now", something like that. That way the conversation doesn't get partly derailed by the question of why it was a post-and-run thing.
posted by cortex (staff) at 7:06 AM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


P.S. scody, as ever, I love all your thoughtful, wise and excellent comments. Thank you so much.
posted by nickyskye at 7:11 AM on November 10, 2011


I haven't read the full thread, only what scody has posted as she is a friend.

2 things I wanted to add.....

When a partner was found to have breast cancer and we were confronted with dealing with it, I felt that it had a generational stigma attached to it. As if it was the AIDS of the 20th Century before AIDS came about. It was a death sentence. Period! It's like my 93 year old mother using 1947 anti-communist language to describe Obama, liberal media. The blowback to her diagnosis from many seemed to have similar roots. This includes the medical profession. I think this still influences language and makes it a zero-sum game.

2 -3 years after treatment. (We had been broken up for about a year) she had issues that signaled there may have been a recurrance. In front of her I laid into all the reasons I felt were to blame realizing there was nothing I could do for her. She looked me square in the eye and said "Cancer is consciousness too"

I am a spiritual person. I turned away from her not wanting to hear this. I also knew that she had nailed something.
posted by goalyeehah at 10:27 AM on November 10, 2011


Thanks for linking the Hitchens quote, homunculus. To summarize Hitchens like I did is a travesty to that man's command of language.
posted by lazaruslong at 3:03 PM on November 10, 2011


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