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A friend of mine drew my attention via Twitter this week to an article detailing Robert Peston’s thoughts on his late wife’s cancer. If you  have not read it, it’s a compelling read, not least to rediscover the truth that cancer happens to the famous among us as readily as to ordinary mortals.

Full marks to Peston for ‘speaking out’, especially for remarking on the impact of the disease on his children. He is right; cancer does happen to a whole family, not just those receiving treatment. In this sense cancer is mundane, ordinary. Food still needs to be bought and prepared and eaten. The school run waits for no one.

Unfortunately this is the side of cancer still very much missing from everyday portrayals of the disease. We prefer to consume stories about the outward signifiers of cancer, for example articles about ‘brave’ actors being seen for the first time without any hair. Leaving aside the unpleasant vicariousness of sharing in the minutiae of celebrity suffering, the more insidious issue at stake here is the unquestioning acceptance of cancer as a battle.

To be precise, my issue is not with Robert Peston, but rather with unthinking copy editors who insist on inserting ‘battle with’ in front of the word cancer.

I have written here before about the deficiencies of the battle metaphor to describe cancer. Here is a summary:

1. From personal experience I can say after a day on a chemotherapy drip you feel the battle is being done to you, not that you are choosing to fight in one yourself.

2. The notion of a ‘battle’ places the responsibility of getting better upon the patient. This opens up the possibility that it is the ‘strong’ or ‘deserving’ patients who survive having cancer, and that those who die from it are somehow lacking in moral fibre. This is dangerous. (I sometimes wonder if it is not unlike a bizarre mutation of the Protestant work ethic, itself a mutation of the notion of the idea of ‘deserving’ to be ‘saved’.)

3. The idea of cancer as a battle unnecessarily romanticises cancer as a disease when there is nothing romantic about it. Consider the short sentence used at the head of the Peston article, used almost always in the past tense and when someone has just died. Even though the battle has been lost we persist in reassuring ourselves that the deceased has ‘given it everything’. Like so much that is said about cancer by people who have not had it, it is uttered more to reassure the speaker than those having treatment for the disease.

I have great admiration for those who fund research into cancer, the charities and charity runners ‘racing for life’ in the search for a so-called cure to the disease. Long may they all continue. But I do think the discourse around cancer reached a new low recently with the current Race for Life video, which contains the unintentionally hilarious line: ‘Cancer, you prat.’

Is this really the best we can do?

Far more tuthful is the view of those such as Ade Edmondson, who, in an article similar to Peston’s (but with a crucially different outcome) has said the following:

‘So, there is no battle. I hate the word battle. You just get battered with a load of drugs. People want the words “trauma”, “battle” and ” life-changing”, but it’s not a great three-part TV drama full of moments, it’s a long grind, like a slow car crash that will last five years and then, hopefully, we’ll get out.’

This pretty much nails it. But because the battle metaphor is so persuasive and sexy, voices like Edmondson’s are heard all too rarely.

Next time you are tempted to retweet stories such as Peston’s without a moment’s thought, please pause to question the efficacy of cancer as a battle, with its inevitable logic of valour, winners and losers. To misquote Orwell, in the battle against cancer as a war metaphor I do not need to ask myself which side I am on.

You can read my account of cancer in my memoir Love for Now and in my collection of poems Riddance.