Winning: Changing the Language of Breast Cancer

[By Phillis h. Rambsy]

In her recent
blog post, Simone Savannah reminds us that instead of thinking of their bodies
as “abnormal” women should “take charge of their health which also means
embracing the differences in their bodies.” 
Savannah points to the several poems that “give women the space to
embrace their bodies.”  These poems allow
women, particularly, Black women, to re-imagine the racist and sexist views of
the Black female body.
Just as Savannah
reminds us to be cognizant of the necessity of re-imagining the body, we should
also be cognizant of re-imagining the language that is utilized to describe the
lives of those who fight the opponent of breast cancer.  In revisiting a post from last year about
Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals, the
vitality of Lorde in the face of breast cancer rival is striking.  Lorde’s language is one of a victor; one who
is faced with a life-threatening disease but still chooses autonomy and victory
rather than victimization and defeat. 
Although, Lorde ultimately died as a result of breast cancer, she
definitely was not defeated by the disease. 
Lorde, through her narrative about her struggle with disease, proves that those
diagnosed with breast cancer are not mere victims of the disease.  Above all, even in death, Lorde’s words
remind us that those who have breast cancer, and even die from it, do not
necessarily endure a losing battle.

A person who
loses is a “loser.”  It is, therefore,
baffling as well as inaccurate to detail the lives of those who have died from
breast cancer in terms of their having “lost” their battles with the
disease.  Describing individuals who die
from breast cancer as having “lost” their battles employs a sports analogy by
suggesting that those who have died from the disease are “losers.”  Indicating that, by dying, those with breast
cancer have lost their battles also implies that they could have “won” if, like
other losing athletes/teams, they had simply trained harder, been stronger, had
better coaches, etc. 
The sobering
reality of breast cancer is that it will, at times, cause death.  Yet describing breast cancer as the victor
discounts the journeys of survival taken by those who live with breast
cancer—even those who eventually die as a result of the disease.  Giving breast cancer the power of victory is
also a disservice to the cheerleaders who stand on the sidelines and in the
stands continuously offering encouragement during breast cancer journeys.  It also discounts the work, service and
sacrifice of those other teammates who are also present on the field against
this beastly foe.  
Those who live
with and ultimately die from breast cancer are certainly not losers.  Instead, these individuals are mothers who
decide that winning means witnessing their children graduate from high school;
even while knowing that they may never see these children graduate from
college, start a career, marry and/or have children.  Instead of being losers, these individuals
are young sisters who refuse to let a diagnosis of breast cancer dictate the
paths that the remainder of their lives will take; and they continue with
education and career plans while battling breast cancer.  Far from being losers, these breast cancer
warriors are individuals who transform chemotherapy sessions into impromptu
reunions; and while, even in the face of death, produce some of the most
delightful memories of their lives.  
Even if death is the final destination on the breast cancer journey,
those who battle the disease are certainly not losers.  Instead, they are MVPs, All-Stars, and
Language is
powerful; so too are labels.  To describe
a person who has died from breast cancer as having “lost” the battle imparts a
powerful message.  It suggests that the
person with breast cancer somehow lacked a specified set of skills required to
“win.”  Characterizing a person as having
“lost” a battle with breast cancer also discounts the unique methods of
survival employed by those who battle breast cancer.  Above all, to indicate that one who dies from
breast cancer has “lost” eliminates the mental victories that are often won
against breast cancer.  The mind is also
powerful; and in the battles against breast cancer, the mind is one of the most
useful strategies in the playbook.  The
mind ensures that those living with breast cancer are continuously winning!

h. Rambsy
is an attorney and educator. In addition to her work in the fields of
law and education, Phillis also studies, writes, and speaks about theological
issues as well as issues concerning health and wellness. Phillis is powerfully
committed to encouraging individuals to attain lives that are spiritually,
physically, and mentally healthy.

One thought on “Winning: Changing the Language of Breast Cancer

  1. I really appreciate this post. Language is very powerful. It is interesting to watch language evolve and how we use it in different instances. For example, the use of the word "victim" for people who have experienced some sort of trauma. The words we choose to talk about (someone else's) experience present show how in tune we are with (someone else's) experience or journey.

    I think the rhetoric surrounding breast cancer reflects how we view womanhood. For example, we view women who have to have mastectomies as losers. And they think of themselves that way because they no longer have that symbol of femininity/femaleness. I hope that makes sense.

    Anyway, I agree. I think it's important to examine language and its effect on the people who are being labeled.

    Great piece! Thank you for honoring our Champions!!

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