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On John McCain and “beating” cancer

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In case you missed the horrible news, John McCain has been diagnosed with brain cancer.

The Arizona senator has had a long and distinguished career in politics, and while I’ve often disagreed with his positions, I’ve generally found him to be a man of conviction and principles. Or, put different, if you’re a close pal of Joe Biden, you must be doing something right.

Anyhow, the responses from the political world were pretty boilerplate, thought not in a bad way. Lots of love and respect and admiration. One, however, grabbed my attention …

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To be clear, this is not a political statement. I’d be making this point whether the Vice President were an arch conservative or a far-left liberal. But … man, I hate sentiments like the one written by Pence. I’m certain the words come from a kind place, but this whole personification of cancer that we do is simply maddening.

Cancer is not a person, and it’s not something to be opposed like Conor McGregor stepping into the ring with Floyd Mayweather. It doesn’t pick “the wrong guy” or “the right guy.” Fighters can overcome it, fighters can succumb to it. Non-fighters can overcome it, non-fighters can succumb to it. The Trump Administration likes to frame things as “win” and “lose,” but cancer doesn’t subscribe to such base actions. You listen to your doctors, you do what they tell you, you try and keep the faith and maintain optimism—and you hope it works for the best.

I don’t resent the Vice President praying. I don’t even resent the vice president’s Tweet.

I just think it’s a simple outlook on a far more complicated tragedy.

4 replies on “On John McCain and “beating” cancer”

thanks for this. as a person who lost a young sister to cancer, i actually find the idea of “beating” and “fighting” cancer offensive. It implies that somehow the folks who die from cancer are less, that they didn’t “fight” hard enough or in the right way. Often the opposite is true. Living with or dying with cancer is often courageous. My support and admiration go out to the survivors and the non survivors!

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As a cancer survivor (five years this week), I’ve been fascinated by the notion of “battling/fighting” cancer. It’s a popular, maybe even prevalent, mindset among people who have it – to the point you really have to correct people if you don’t want them framing your experience with it in those terms.

But I’m more a workaround guy than a fighter, so that’s how I always approached cancer. “I’ve got it, I have to deal with it, so this is how I do things now, and I’ll probably have to adapt my approach continually depending on how things go.”

For me, if there was a “fight” it was one waged over controlling the narrative of my cancer story. As a survivor with a relatively easy experience, I like to compare it to bungee-jumping (or, for a more select audience, like writing) something you’re totally glad you did but may not have actually enjoyed doing. If it had gone a different way, well, like Mick Foley once told me, it’s always best to get carried out of the ring flat on your back. I’d much rather people consider me to have died well than to have lost my battle.

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The phrases “fighting cancer”, “battling cancer”, “beating cancer”, “losing his/her battle with cancer”, have much in common with, and are often used with the phrase, “Our thoughts and Prayers are with (fill in the blank)”. They are what one says when confronted with the misfortunes of others, and not knowing what to say yet feels obligated to say something.

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While I agree with the general sentiment you express, I have to call bullshit on one thing here. Why Pence? You say you would make this remark regardless of political affiliation, yet I kind of feel like it played a role. The reason? Barack Obama said something very similar along those lines:

Now I’m no conservative or fan of Pence, but this also feels like this is more a dig at Pence than it was a pet peeve on how to express your support of someone recently diagnosed with cancer.

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