A Cancer Death Does Not A Hero Make – Why We Must Stop “Fighting” Cancer

News reports today share the sad new that Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple has passed away after a long illness. Jobs, it’s reported, had pancreatic cancer, a particularly insidious form of the disease.

The headline I read stated Jobs “lost his fight” against cancer.

The media uses this terminology a lot, but I find that people in real life – particularly those who have cancer or who work with those who have it –  don’t. The hairs stand up on the back on my neck whenever I read a headline like this. Not because someone died, although I do feel sad when this happens, but because of this word “fight” that is always used in association with it.

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Fighting connotates a struggle is taking place, that resistance against an unwanted foe is in play. Of course, no one ever wants to have cancer. But does everyone always not want to die?

Why, when someone dies of cancer, do we say they “lost their fight”? Did they see themselves as a conquered victim? Did they pass away thinking they were vanquished, defeated, a loser, just because they died? Are people who die losers?

Everyone dies. It’s difficult to deal with finding out you will probably die in a manner not of your choosing, before you did everything you wanted to do. I know, because I was diagnosed with advanced cancer in 2003. I am now in remission. I am offended by this idea we perpetuate that when someone dies of cancer, cancer is somehow the winner. No, cancer is not.  There are no winners and losers in cancer, unless the person with the cancer thinks this mindset helps them stay mentally strong. Surviving doesn’t mean you’re a winner, any more than dying means you’re somehow a loser.

We cannot know Jobs state of mind at the time of his death, but we do know he was financially comfortable and achieved a great deal in his lifetime. Perhaps he was ready to die, willing even. Perhaps he died with acceptance and grace. That would make him as great is his passing as he was in his lifetime. We know that as well as having a good life, it is possible to have a good death.

Yes, it’s possible to have a good death.

A good death is one where you have been able to come to accept what is happening to you. A good death is one where you are able to extend mercy to those who have wronged you in your lifetime. A good death is one where you are able to accept forgiveness for all the wrongs you have committed, particularly toward others. A good death is one where loose ends are tied up and words of reconciliation and grace are able to be said. And a good death is one where others also accept what is happening and are able to allow it, accept it, and support it.

Accidental and sudden deaths are tragic in that there often is not time for these things to occur. The natural physical, emotional and spiritual process is thwarted. This is a sad death.

But when someone dies who must die, whether it be “before their time” or as a result of causes out of our control, that does not have to be a bad death.

In the case of persons like Jobs, I don’t believe we ennoble them by making them into defeated heroes, simply because they died of a disease. He died. Of a disease. What happened was not unusual, peculiar or unnatural. Dying of cancer isn’t heroic, and we must stop this incessant hero-making process when it comes to cancer. What makes a person a hero is what they were able to do with their humanity while they were alive, not their mortality. In fact, I believe we diminish the life of a person by making their mortal illness and death into some kind of act which might overshadow the things they were able to achieve in life.

I think we give cancer way too much credit when we say someone “lost their battle”. Cancer didn’t win. The cancer died when they died – how did it win? Because it caused their death?

Was the sum of their life diminished because their death was caused by cancer? Not one bit.

“Fighting” is not the default position of all people who have cancer. Being “beaten” is not the default position of all people who die from it. Most people with cancer die because of their vanquished bodies, not because of their vanquished souls. In the case of a great and successful man like Jobs, I think it’s time we simply said “He may have died because of cancer, but he fully lived whilst his body allowed.” That, I believe, would be as fitting an epitaph as anyone could want.


10 thoughts on “A Cancer Death Does Not A Hero Make – Why We Must Stop “Fighting” Cancer

  1. “He may have died because of cancer, but he fully lived whilst his body allowed.”

    Thank you for these beautiful words. This is how I think of my dad.

  2. What a wonderful world it would be if we all lived our lives in readiness for a “good death”, no matter when it happens, sudden or not.

  3. A very fitting issue to address today. When I worked with Fiona on the Relay for Life documentary I was struck by the oddness of personalizing a strategy that is really only meant to be a grand narrative for fundraising.

  4. You’ve got a great point here. Just as we can choose to live a good life, with the support of our family, friends, and doctors we can choose to die a good death.

    “He may have died because of cancer, but he fully lived whilst his body allowed.”

    This is what it’s all about, isn’t it? Even in palliative care, when the inability to “cure” is ackowledged, the focus remains on living as fully as possible while we are granted that ability.

  5. “A good death.” Amazing. I read this yesterday (10/17). Later in the day, I was reading Kathleen Norris’ book “AmazIng Grace.” Have you read it? The chapter on “Perfection” reads in part: “Perfection, in a Christian sense, means becoming mature enough to give ourselves to others. Whatever we have, no matter how little it seems, is something that can be shared with those who are poorer. This sort of perfection demands that we become fully ourselves as God would have us: mature, ripe, full, ready for what befalls us, for whatever is to come… I am thinking of an acquaintance, Catherine LaCugna, a professor of systematic theology who, when doctors informed her that there was nothing more they could do for her, and that cancer would kill her within a few months, … continued teaching. She told only a few close friends that she was near death, and she went on living the life she had chosen. She was able to teach until a few days before she died… Now, whenever I recite the prayer that ends the church’s liturgical day, ‘May the Lord grant us a peaceful night, and a perfect death,’ it is her death that I think of. A perfect death, fully acknowledged and fully realized, offered for others.”

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