How do you describe someone with advanced cancer? A cancer sufferer? A cancer patient? Struggling with cancer? Fighting cancer? Being treated for cancer? Having a terminal illness? Having the Big C?
It’s hard to know really. Is there an etiquette we should follow? In the last week or so I’ve been introduced to others both as a cancer survivor and as someone who is dying of cancer. Sounds to me like two different people!
I’ve found the whole terminology thing awkward for a long time. Earlier this year we joined in the Relay for Life and I was invited to walk a lap of honour as a cancer survivor. Seemed strange to say the least. I wasn’t long out of hospital. I was still coming to grips with my diagnosis. You could hardly describe me as a survivor. I’d only just begun the journey and the prognosis was bad. Surely I’d need to be in remission, have no evidence of disease, or be pronounced ‘cancer free’, in order to qualify as a survivor! Last week I was introduced to a gathering of people with lung cancer – and their carers – as a cancer survivor. It seemed a little more reasonable now. I was still alive and I’m approaching my one year anniversary.
Am I survivor? The reality is I am. I’m still living, breathing, and at this point I’m in better health than I was when diagnosed. I’ll be a survivor until such time as I die. But to be honest, I’m keen to do much more than survive. I don’t want to be defined by my disease. I want to live well – not indulgently – but in a way that honours God and others. I want to have the life and death of Jesus at work in me, to serve others rather than serve myself.
I’ve also been described as dying of cancer. It’s understandable to speak in this way, because it’s potentially the most unique or distinctive thing about me. I’ve been described as ‘husband of Fiona’, ‘father of Luke or Matt or Grace or Marcus’, ‘son of Norman and Ruth’, ‘Pastor of Crossroads’, ‘chaplain to the Brumbies’, ‘keen on fishing’, ‘friend of someone or other’, and lots of less charitable things! At the moment, the characteristic I’m best known for is ‘having cancer’.
But, am I dying of cancer? I’ve been told what I have is incurable. The treatment is not expected to eradicate the cancer. The survival rate over 5 years for lung cancer is only 16%. Few people ever fully recover from lung cancer. Initial diagnosis at Stage IV is seriously bad news. So, am I dying of lung cancer? The truth is that I don’t know. Nobody does, not even the oncologists. People do get healed. God is completely capable of healing me. Will God heal me? I‘ve got no idea! Modern medical options are amazing. They’re discovering new things about cancer all the time. New treatments are being invented at a rapid rate. Who knows what the future holds? Many people die with cancer rather than of cancer. How will I die? High odds on it being the cancer that causes my death, but ultimately only God knows. And I’m happy about that!
The one thing I do know is that I am dying one way or the other. But it seems strange to introduce me as someone who is. After all, we’re ALL dying. It’s not unique to me. I’ve been reminded in this past week of how true this is. There was the sad story of the teenage girl who plunged to her death from the 22nd floor of a Gold Coast building, during schoolies week. Bryce Courtenay lost his fight with cancer, dying in his Canberra home at the age of 79. On Saturday I joined with others in celebrating the life of my good friend, Chappo, who passed away at the age of 82, because his body was no longer able to fight the infections. Another friend has just lost her sister. It may be sooner or it may be later, but we should recognise the fact that we’re dying. We need to take stock of this reality. In fact, a friend reminded me of this again recently, when she asked me what was on my bucket list!
I know it’s awkward, and it’s so hard to know how to say things, but maybe cancer survivor or dying of cancer aren’t the best ways to describe me. At present, I’m living with cancer. But I don’t want that to define me either. Yes, I’m dying, but I was dying before my cancer diagnosis. In reality, nothing has fundamentally changed. Maybe I’ve got a better idea of the time frame, but then I hope that I don’t! I’ve survived so far, thanks to God, but will I survive my cancer? In this life, I can’t say. But I firmly believe that this life is not all there is. Along with Chappo, who’s enjoying his new life now, I look forward to the day when there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. (Revelation 21:4) Can I encourage you to do the same?