"When you die, that does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and the manner in which you live." Stuart Scott, July 16, 2014.
Sports fans were saddened this week by the news that Stuart Scott, ESPN anchor, died at age 49, seven years after his cancer diagnosis. But his influence extended far beyond the sports world. Although I’m sure I saw Scott on the infrequent occasions when I watched ESPN, it was his acceptance speech for the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance at the ESPY’s award ceremony that inspired me.
All too often I read the obituaries that state, "She lost her battle with breast cancer." Of course, I am saddened to read about another death, but I am also disturbed by the implication that death equals a lost battle. People who struggle bravely through all sorts of pain and trials are not losers. Mothers who hang onto life long past their doctors’ expectations so that they can care for their little children are champions.
Some people don’t like battle imagery to describe their cancer experience. They feel that that the cancer is part of their body and that the word "fight" suggests that they are at war with themselves. Others just find the phrase too militaristic for their liking. Last week one of my friends described a relative as dying after "a long walk with breast cancer."
I personally never had a problem with thinking about my cancer experience as a battle. I had to gather my resources and find the strongest weapons to kill the cancer cells that were trying to kill me. I needed a whole army of medical professionals, friends and family to get me through the experience.
Yet, I have always been uncomfortable with comments that I won my "battle with cancer." What does that mean? If I am to be credited with victory, does that disparage those who died after heroic efforts? Who are the winners and losers where cancer is concerned? Yes, many of us are still alive. Some of us are even still alive with few or minimal physical side effects of treatment. But like veterans returning from a war, we bear scars, scars that are often invisible.
Scott was comfortable with the fight analogy for cancer, but he put into words what has troubled me for years about the language we use about cancer. Scott described the cancer fight as a group effort. He said, “So live. Live. Fight like hell. And when you get too tired to fight, lay down and rest and let somebody else fight for you.” Later he expanded on this idea, “This whole fight, this journey thing is not a solo venture. This is something that requires support.”
Even more importantly, Scott saw victory over cancer as being measured by more than the length of one’s life. Cancer cells can end our physical life, but cancer does not beat the person who makes her own choices about how to deal with the disease and who meets it on her own terms. No matter what the doctor says about our prognosis this kind of triumph over cancer is open to all.
“When you die, that does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and the manner in which you live.” Stuart Scott, July 16, 2014.
To see Scott’s speech in its entirety: Stuart Scott Accepts Jimmy V Award. ESPN Video. July 16, 2014. Accessed from https://espn.go.com/video/clip?id=11225895 January 5, 2015.
Phyllis Johnson is an inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) survivor diagnosed in 1998. She has written about cancer for HealthCentral since 2007. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the oldest 501(3)© organization focused on research for IBC. She is a list monitor for an online support group at www.ibcsupport.org. Phyllis attends conferences such as the National Breast Cancer Coalition’s Project LEAD® Institute. She tweets at @mrsphjohnson.