Metaphorically Speaking

A friend and fellow AIDS activist from my Philadelphia days has just learned that she has lung cancer. Symptomless, she had an X-ray done for a swimming rotator cuff injury, and an alert technician spotted the tangerine-sized mass where none should be. She is starting down the road to treatment, and, as all those with cancer (and AIDS) do, receives encouragement to “fight this disease.” Susan Sontag wrote a prescient piece on this in the seventies (“Illness As Metaphor”) and then a companion piece (“AIDS and Its Metaphors”) in the eighties, and I wonder if, following her own diagnosis, she received the “Fight, fight, fight” message.

What really offends me is when a memorial piece or obituary notes that “s/he lost her/his battle with cancer.” Now I know that we also use the metaphor for “fighting a cold” or “fighting off the flu”, but why is that? The question has bothered me since my own involvement in AIDS research and education in the nineties. I made a futile attempt then in my public speaking to change the terms of engagement. I would try to talk of a ship that we were all sailing on (Noah’s Ark?). Not sure now where I was going with that, but that ship never got out of the harbor.

Does it make us feel that fighting these diseases gives us more power over them? What would the alternative be? Lying back and taking your medicine, like what? Showing up for your radiation appointment on time, rather than late? Smiling through the nausea?

Somewhere implicit in all this is the desire not to be a victim. So very often the societal judgment immediately shifts to questions: “Did you smoke, drink, have unprotected sex, not wear a seatbelt?” I see these queries as an evocation of magical thinking, charms to ward off the evil eye, or the toxic breath, or the curse of the illness. If I don’t smoke, drink too much, mostly wear protection, usually buckle up, I will be spared.

And I won’t even begin to address the proffered advice: a vegan diet, this herb, that healer. It is well meant, usually, but again creates a victim- one who ate meat, or didn’t use the proper nostrums or enchantments.

I had a brush with this at a college reunion, maybe twenty years out. Most of us were starting to pork out somewhat, and then Sharon arrived, as stunning and slim as she had been lo those many years ago. At lunch, she refused the meal served, and from her bag produced a variety of containers with a melange of “healthy” foods. She then revealed to us that she had been diagnosed with lung cancer. Twenty years of living with an abusive smoker and two years with a loving partner, and now the diagnosis. We all but crawled under the tables, to realize that our petty envy was for a woman struggling with so much more than her weight.

And here I have done it again; the metaphor of struggle rears its ugly head. So maybe it is a struggle. A struggle to survive under difficult circumstances, to bear up under a death sentence, to give as well as receive. But what else is life?

We are here for so short a time, as the astronomers gleefully point out. What should a life be? A struggle against ignorance, and a reaching out to others, finding love and sharing love, making a mark, being remembered.

But it is a battle that you do not lose if you embrace life wholeheartedly and love with a will. It is all up to you in the beginning and the end.