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Column: “Battling Cancer”

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Kenneth B. Lourie

I suppose, as a cancer patient, there’s a presumption/understanding that not giving into cancer and its potential ravages is an ongoing battle – to the death, if you will. And I imagine, on many levels, some truer than others, it is. War is indeed waged – so to speak, in hopes of defeating this horrible disease (enemy).

Personally, I don’t view what I do – surviving as a cancer patient: following doctor’s orders, filling prescriptions, ingesting medications, enduring chemotherapy, scheduling and then being diagnostically scanned, making food and lifestyle changes, adding miscellaneous supplements to my diet; in general, trying to live healthier and be a “compliant” patient, as anything more than common sense. It’s not a battle – to me, it’s simply what you do. As the South Korean widow said to Hawkeye Pierce on a M*ASH episode way back when, responding to his question about how she could walk so far to get water: “Because that’s where the water is,” she answered.

And so a while back, it struck me as odd that a woman to whom I was introduced – and who knew of my less-than-ideal health circumstances, straight-forwardly and most sincerely (having recently been widowed herself when her husband succumbed to a cancer diagnosis) asked: “I understand you’re battling cancer.” It was in fact the first time in my nearly three years of being a cancer patient/survivor that I had ever been asked that exact question.

It was not her directness that was off-putting. Nor was it her presuming a familiarity – between us, that did not exist, that such a potentially intrusive, certainly private/personal subject could be so casually raised – by a relative stranger, in the middle of a 27-person Christmas dinner. No. It simply caught me by surprise, and I believe my answer/reaction likewise caught her by surprise and may have even made her a bit uncomfortable and apologetic for having inquired (although it was certainly not my intention). I laughed at her question and said: “I suppose so.” To which she replied: “I didn’t mean to ... .” “No problem,” I said, as the commotion of the occasion sort of ended our conversation.

One other time I was present when this “battling cancer” phrase was invoked. Although this time, it was a former female co-worker greeted by another former co-worker at our company Christmas party who asked, innocently enough of her, how she was doing: “I’m battling cancer” came her reply. I snickered then when I heard it, and even commented to our Publisher, Mary Kimm, also a cancer survivor, who was standing alongside me at the time and witnessed the entire exchange: “You know Mary, I’ve never said that – or felt that.” A year later this “battling cancer” answer was questioned to me.

I don’t really have any objections to either of these exchanges. I guess if had to summarize my feelings, however, about what I heard answered and what I was asked, I would say it’s probably me trying to make light of a very heavy set of circumstances, and on some occasions, the less said about it, the better. It’s awkward, sort of. Although, I don’t really mind. Still; sometimes, I just don’t feel the need.

Kenny Lourie is an Advertising Representative for The Potomac Almanac & The Connection Newspapers.