Looking for non-military metaphors for living with cancer
September 21, 2016 7:51 AM   Subscribe

I have multiple myeloma (bone marrow cancer) and though I want to do everything possible to regain my health, I'm not a fan of the military metaphors people use. Several studies have found that people who use military metaphors have more trouble with making changes that might prolong their lives. Can the hive mind come up with better ideas?

This piece also brought up some interesting points (you don't say someone won a battle with a car accident - and this person doesn't really feel like she "beat cancer" either). Also, I will be beginning chemo soon, and I know that Dr. Bernie Siegel (who may be too woo for some) found that people who viewed chemo as helping them, as revealed in their drawings, seemed to do better than people who saw it as poisoning them. I have always tried to stay away from the medical establishment as much as possible, and right now, I picture cancer treatment like I"m falling into the jaw of some huge metallic monster/robot/dragon, and I want to have more positive images. I already have the app "Whip Cancer." I know about the book "Illness as Metaphor." I am already a fan of Kris Carr. One image that seems closer to what I'm looking for is viewing the chemo as being like PacMan eating the cancer cells. I think a cleansing image rather than a fighting image might work better for me. I also read something about thinking of "lost health" as being like "lost car keys." You can look for them - you don't have to walk home. Some types of "positive thinking" seem really fatuous to me - this is not going to be an easy thing to get through, and I know it. Barbara Ehrenreich has written that the endless pink that greets breast cancer patients can be infantilizing and ignores men with breast cancer - and women who don't identify with the hyper-feminine (though if it's helpful to some people, that's great). Yet I am trying very hard to stay optimistic and I really do believe that there is a mental game here that will help me deal with what's coming and give me the best shot at long-term remission. Also, I will likely live for a long time yet, and I am not interested in thinking about accepting death at this point. So given my blizzard of snowflakes, does anyone have some ideas? Thanks.
posted by FencingGal to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
My mother used pacman imagery 25 years ago when she was going through active treatment for cancer, and she is still doing well. (Of course who knows if the imagery played any part in her current health, but it's one anecdote anyway) Another image she found helpful was of a bunch of little janitors, wearing white outfits, going through her body cleaning and polishing.
posted by dttocs at 7:58 AM on September 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm thinking of plant imagery: Weeding a garden? Pulling suckers off a tomato plant? Pruning branches in a huge orchard?

If you think of your body as naturally being in balance, perhaps putting some weight on one end of a see-saw so that it balances again?
posted by tchemgrrl at 8:15 AM on September 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Maybe just think of it as "dealing with" cancer? With the chemo and such as just tools you're using? That framing puts you back in charge.
posted by lazuli at 8:58 AM on September 21, 2016

Would it help to think of it as a particularly aggressive sickness, rather than CANCER!? If you had pneumonia, you'd take antibiotics; you have multiple myeloma, so you get chemo.
posted by teremala at 9:09 AM on September 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

This may sound frivolous, but what about the metaphor of a full body scrub (like a sugar scrub) but for your cells? A scrub can hurt a little and leave you a little raw & sore, but it sloughs off the stuff you don't need and leaves you feeling renewed. You could probably substitute other grooming metaphors -- what about plucking eyebrows or waxing legs or applying a facial peel? These, too, remove things you don't want from your body.

Or how about a garden-related image? Thinking about a gardener weeding a garden or picking ladybugs off the leaves of a plant might work.

I wish you the best of luck with your treatment!
posted by ourobouros at 9:50 AM on September 21, 2016

How about political?

My dad, while dying of glioblastoma multiforme:

I used to think of the cancer as evil, as Adolf Hilter invading my body. But lately I've been sympathetic to it. It's just a dumb little piece of nature, trying to make its way, totally unaware of the devastation it's causing. You know, like George W. Bush.
posted by The Noble Goofy Elk at 10:22 AM on September 21, 2016 [9 favorites]

Gilda Radner wrote about her imagery in "It's Always Something." She pictured her body was a big, pink, fluffy towel. Chemo/Radiation was washing the towel and she would mentally pick the remaining bits of lint (cancer) from the towel to make it warm and cozy and comforting.
posted by goggie at 11:00 AM on September 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm at the tail end of treatment for breast cancer. I have been bothered by the military/combat imagery around cancer since my mother had breast cancer when I was a teenager. Partially because I think it is counterproductive to think of oneself as being at war with one's body, but also because the experience of cancer treatment doesn't feel at all like a fight. It's much more passive than that, and more nuanced.

I think of my treatment as being like a roller coaster. I'm not in control of where the ride is going, how fast, or how intense; once I made the treatment decisions with my medical team, they were in charge of those aspects. My job is to stay in the seat and do my best to cope with the ride.

I do quite like the pacman imagery though. Wish I'd thought of that during chemo.
posted by jeoc at 11:07 AM on September 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

You could think in terms of housekeeping - gotta clean up those broken and damaged and out of proper place cells, and help those healthy cells recover. Chemo is like soap and a scrubbing brush. After a clean up session where the cancer cells get dislodged from your bone marrow, you're not going to be ready to serve meals and suchright away, as things will still need to be dried and ironed and the flatware has to be put away before you can take it out again and set the table.

Alternatively changing scale as you sitting in the waiting room you can think of your whole body as a large general hospital with several different departments or as a small city and your various cells as patients, orderlies, sanitation workers, nurses, sewage, food service workers, trucks, etc. depending on what function they serve and what condition they are in. When you go for a walk you describe the improved circulation as supplies being delivered and the air quality index in FencingGalville as being fair today instead of poor. Vitamin supplements is the mail being delivered. Chemo is when the City Inspector has several condemned buildings hit with a demolition order. The resultant dead cancerous cells are the heaps of wet and mouldy plaster that have to be trucked out to the sanitary landfill. If chemo hits you badly this is because the previous tenants of those buildings are stuck in homeless shelters and your streets are choked with dump-trucks full of plaster.

If you do get dragged into using military metaphors you will naturally want to get the home front thoroughly mobilized. It's not a matter of sitting in the War Room watching CNN helplessly to find out if the enemy is going to drop a hydrogen bomb on you. Your students will begin studying the language and culture of your enemy so that you will understand them better. Your diplomats will begin negotiations with your enemy's allies, so that you can get close to them and get lines of communication open so that truces, prisoner exchanges and rules of engagement can be declared and enforced. Your business people will figure out what resources have ordinarily come from your enemies and look for alternative sources of those things, or find middle men that will resell them to you. Your intelligence service will be using every possible source of information, both white and black, overt and covert to figure out what is going on. Huge quantities of materials will go into the building of new dry docks, new factories and new manufacturing plants. Even housing for the people who will work at these factories will have to be built and the roads, power plants and sewers to supply them. Your civilians will begin an massive campaign of conservation where your resources are all used towards that vital goal of maintaining quality of life and survival. Your civilian infrastructure will go into overdrive ensuring that security and productivity will continue in the usual way day to day, despite the war, that there will be eggs for breakfast, mail will be delivered and dental care will be available and bedtime stories, even if thousands of people have to be evacuated and there is rationing and the children are now sleeping four to a bed and everyone gets their new clothes from racks of second hand clothes in a church basement using clothing coupons.

The home front can keep you so busy looking after your evacuees and knitting socks for airmen and collecting aluminum saucepans for the metal drives that you safely stay out of that bad first person shooter, where one side or the other or both implausibly never run out of ammunition. Anyone who has actually lived through a war will tell you that you end up endlessly scrounging for soap, or internet minutes, or cigarettes or condoms, or batteries, not for ammunition. (Even if you do not personally have any use for the soap, cigarettes or condoms they are useful as currency.)
posted by Jane the Brown at 11:07 AM on September 21, 2016

Some really great ideas here. Keep them coming.

Ourobouros' idea of the sugar scrub ended up making me think of the "land of Oz" song in the Emerald City where they're polishing the Tin Man and restuffing the Scarecrow. I'm a big fan of kind of silly images, so I'm trying to think of ways (and appropriate lyrics) to incorporate that into my thoughts.

Thanks everyone!
posted by FencingGal at 1:34 PM on September 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

A dear friend viewed her cancer like something her dog left behind, then tracked all over the house when he was a puppy. Chemo was, of course, Scrubbing Bubbles - complete with he smiling cartoon bubbles - cleaning everything up again. (She said it also helped to have fun hats and scarves when she lost her hair, and to think of chemo as a great weight loss plan. She held on to her sense of humor til the end and said it helped every bit of the way.)
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 3:22 PM on September 21, 2016

I'm *living* with cancer.

Also, my chemo is the iocaine powder that the Dread Pirate Roberts must take in order to build up his immunity for the showdown with Vizinni.

"What you do not smell is called iocane powder. It is odorless, tasteless, dissolves instantly in liquid, and is among the more deadlier poisons known to man."
posted by MsMolly at 4:44 PM on September 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

You might be interested in several of the segments in this episode of On the Media from last year: The Cancer Show (a two-parter). I'm sorry I can't recall right now the other metaphors suggested, but they definitely tackled this topic in a thoughtful, sensitive way. (Tackle... hummm, football metaphor, not that great...)

I only have experience witnessing a relative's chemo sessions and nothing of my own, but an image that comes up in my head is hacking one's way through a dense forest/rainforest, occasionally having to lie down and take naps inside, before getting out/into a clearing. Maybe this is too far a reach? Queen of stained metaphors over here.
posted by cluebucket at 6:15 PM on September 21, 2016

Of the trillions of cells in your body, a relatively small fraction are cancerous. It's just quality control to send the chemo drugs in to find and eliminate those bad cells.

Think of the little white "QC" stickers or tags you find in new clothes sometimes: quality control, finding the sub-standard cells and pulling them out.
posted by wenestvedt at 3:20 AM on September 22, 2016

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