From Susan Sontag forward, there's been a strong pushback against the use of war metaphors in relation to cancer. It's a good and mostly useful counterweight (I could have said counterforce...) to a perspective grown heavy with overuse. Our preferred metaphors have a strong influence on our favored actions and need to be questioned... until the balance tips, and the questioners need questioning. That's a job I like maybe a little too well.
As intent as I was a couple of weeks ago on fending off Sontag's take-no-prisoners attack on militaristic metaphorizing, I agree with her that it's not generally helpful in the realm of cancer research and researchers. Fighting and understanding are in most instances inimical, and a researcher is much better served by impassioned curiosity than by hostility or triumphalism. George Johnson has delivered an excellent recent critique of the war metaphor in this context and of the (false) promise trumpeted by many researchers to "make cancer history" (MD Anderson's current tag line). His book The Cancer Chronicles gives a more detailed (and fascinating) description of how the genetic errors that can give rise to cancer are the dark side of our adaptability and resilience.
All that said, and my strong pacifist tendencies notwithstanding, I think that fighting metaphors have potentially healthy uses for cancer patients.
Here's one powerful argument in favor of making the metaphorical connection between cancer and war: it encourages a sympathetic connection between patient and soldier. On Monday I listened with better will, understanding, and attention than I'd ever previously mustered (enlisted? take your pick) to the active soldiers and veterans to whom NPR gave much of the day's air time. Their stories moved me more powerfully for their new and unexpected familiarity. Like it or not, G.E. Lessing had it right - mitleid (compassion) begins at home. Our own suffering makes the ground from which we reach out to suffer with others and perhaps to loosen the grip of suffering, if only with the solace of our company.
I've made a partial list of what I feel I partially share with soldiers. Many of these identifications spill out in other directions (e.g. to the aged and disabled), and none is perfect, but that's exactly the point, exactly what metaphors and analogies are for at their most necessary. The slosh of like into unlike rescues us from solitary confinement and its derangements. Here are some of the intersections I recognized between my own recent experience and that of the soldiers I heard on Monday:
- We have leapt, fallen, or been plucked from the world of "normal" (insofar as that exists for anyone) into a realm of alien sensations, perceptions, and expectations. Even when we occupy the same physical space as "civilians," our understanding of that common reality and how best to navigate it may be at a disorienting and isolating remove.
- We are tasked with entering situations that we would normally judge insanely dangerous and with acting or allowing others to act in ways that we would normally judge insanely violent.
- We often find it difficult to distinguish between useful and debilitating fear. With our lives on the line, we are flushed with the fever of urgency, and our instincts may or may not prove sound.
- We are asked to entrust our lives to "civilian" leadership. Few of those who direct our course have themselves directly faced the dangers that we face or weathered the insults to body and mind that we weather because they have insisted on the necessity.
- Many of us are wounded, scarred, or imperfectly healed. Many of us have become uncomfortably intimate with our bodies' and minds' fragility. Our sense of integrity has been ruptured; we have come undone.
- We are often obsessively occupied with our bodies, with our fitness for the rigors we must endure.
- Our "uniforms," the outward trappings of our difference, can be helpful or problematic. We can excite strong reactions in total strangers, become the objects of affection, generosity, or admiration, also disgust, fear, even anger. Depending on our respective experiences of combat, we may or may not feel we have earned these spontaneous outpourings of emotion, but we are expected to endure them, too, with stoicism if not with good grace.
- We may find comfort in solidarity with other "warriors," but sometimes at the cost of erasures small and large. We may struggle to insist on the differences within our acknowledged difference.
- Those who love us will be pained by our pain, but their pain will rarely mirror ours. It is its own thing and has the potential to isolate us further, not least because we are often even less capable of sitting compassionately with their pain than they are of sitting with ours. The impulse to smooth, to fix, to deny, to flee can be strong on both sides.
Cancer, like war, is not a thing but a process, a terrain. We move through it with broken compasses, trying to read true north from needles that never stop spinning. Crucially, cancer is always a civil war, with all the added insanity that suggests. We have seen the enemy, and it is us; we blow ourselves to bits to keep ourselves together.
But hey! This soldier is nearing the end of a difficult "tour," and she's hopeful that it's her last. Yesterday I made it through #8 of 12 Taxol "infusions." (I'd strongly recommend rooibos over yew-tree the next time you're shopping for herbal tea.) My numbers (blood and liver counts) are less than ideal but holding steady, and side effects haven't yet passed the level of major nuisance. It gets more reasonable all the time to hope that I'll remain within the parameters of acceptable damage for the full course of treatment, and yesterday they let me schedule my final rounds. I loved getting this one into my calendar: 9:30 a.m. on June 24th. It makes a tentative promise that by noon on that day I'll be ready to bid a grateful good-bye to my "unit" and get the hell out of the free-fire zone. Maybe my brother Greg will helicopter me to safety...
In the meantime, I'm playing hausfrau. Behold our new shower curtain (still need to pound in the grommets):
and Pazzo showing off my new lap blanket: