A Different Kind of Battle: How fighting cancer is (and isn’t) like going to war

When you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, as I was a few years ago, well-meaning people around you (even the civilians) start using combat terms. They talk about fighting the disease, waging a battle, putting up the good fight, etc. And it’s understandable: Something that can diminish, or even take your life, can definitely be considered an enemy. But after so much recent debate about whether this is a helpful way to frame disease recovery — and weighing my own experiences as a soldier and a cancer survivor — I’ve come to some conclusions about which attitudes did and didn’t help. 

Fighting cancer is not a war with winners and losers

During the last several decades, cancer was compared with war or going into battle. Depending on your perspective, this could ring true to you, especially since cancer can be such a frightening “enemy” to face, and often there’s so much at stake when confronting it. However, there is another perspective to the issue that many probably don’t consider: 

Using military war analogies, in many ways, implies that a person must perform in a certain way (just as one is required to perform tasks in the military without question). As one cancer survivor notes in this CNN article, “In war, we are taught, there are winners and losers.” Military and war analogies often imply people who don’t survive cancer are “losers,” or that they didn’t fight hard enough.

Phrases like “battling cancer” or “losing the battle” can place undue pressure on the person who is pursuing treatment — and added pressure is likely the last thing they need. And, as many authors and journalists have pointed out, the military comparisons draw questionable conclusions: If you lose the war against cancer, is it because you didn’t fight hard enough? Because you were scared, or just overmatched by your enemy?

Cancer is a devastating disease that comes in many different forms (“attacks on many fronts” — see how easy that is?). There’s no singular treatment because there’s no common enemy to fight, so there can be no winner or loser with this disease that society has yet to entirely figure out. For many types of cancer, experts are still trying to identify the who, what, and where of origin. So if anything, cancer could be compared to a high-stakes, challenging puzzle that needs solving.

Keeping a ‘can-do’ attitude makes a difference

From building bases to saving lives to jumping out of planes and way beyond, the military asks us constantly to perform unfamiliar tasks — and often they’re difficult or even dangerous. There’s no way to accomplish such daunting things with a pessimistic outlook, so soldiers and servicemen know we must carry a “can-do” attitude with us at all times. 

As humans, we each create our own realities with our minds; whether sunny or cloudy, mindset largely determines the way things look and feel to us. It’s no different in the military — or in the doctor’s office. In my own experience, I found that bringing a soldier’s “can-do” attitude to my cancer diagnosis made a big difference in my experience. 

Studies indicate that positivity can go a long way toward helping people with cancer navigate treatment plans and endure side effects. It’s not always easy to maintain during difficult treatments or days when you feel awful. (Without a doubt, there were many down days for me.) But if you can keep yourself thinking positively, it can help you get through treatments, lessen the severity of some symptoms, manage pain — and ultimately face another day of handling tasks for your cancer treatment. Proper sleep and a healthy diet can also go a long way toward helping: A “can-do” approach is easier to achieve when your body feels stronger.

‘Toughing it out’ is counterproductive

Nobody benefits from refusing the help, support, or attention offered by others around us, but a lot can be gained by accepting it. People who have a solid support system of family and friends during cancer treatment may have an advantage, but there’s help to be found outside your inner circle, as well. 

Many organizations on the local, county, regional, and national levels provide support ranging from information to counseling to rides to and from treatment appointments, and much more in between. Here are several cancer support organizations to look to for help.

Financial assistance: Organizations that offer access to financial help and info for cancer treatment

Logistical assistance: Support and information for handling the details indicated in cancer treatment, like scheduling, transportation, temporary housing, insurance, medicine, treatment options, and caregiver issues

Veteran assistance: Resources, information, and support tailored to meet the needs of and explain benefits available to military vets

You don’t have to struggle entirely on your own as you work toward becoming well. Help is available; all you have to do is look for it and be willing to accept it.

Acknowledging your feelings is a must

Cancer is a life-changer, and it can bring up every emotion in the book. This is not always comfortable, especially for those of us steeped in a culture of toughness and self-sufficiency like the military. After my diagnosis, though, I discovered something: Now is not the time to keep it all in. That military stone face won’t help you get through this. You have enough to handle without the added stress of keeping all those emotions bottled up inside. 

Acknowledging feelings of shock, sadness, fear, anxiety, depression, or isolation has been shown to offer great benefits for the overall well-being of people being treated for cancer. Speaking honestly about how you feel can help open up channels of candid communication with others in your life, lessening your emotional burden and leaving you energy to focus on your treatments.

Certainly you can and should talk to family members or friends, but it’s also helpful to process your experience with someone who recognizes what you’re going through. Consider meeting with a counselor trained to address the needs of cancer patients, or joining a support group of others going through cancer treatment. A safe, understanding space can go a long way toward helping you open up and unburden yourself.

Motivation and discipline are vital

Applying your military motivation and discipline to the task of taking care of yourself can help keep you well-equipped to maintain your treatment and recovery. As a veteran, during my treatment for colon cancer, I found my service background to be a distinct advantage: Military careers are tightly entwined with motivation and discipline, and these attributes can go a long way toward helping the pursuit of becoming cancer-free.

To begin with, focus your will and discipline on the basics of staying healthy: 

  • Getting enough sleep 
  • Eating a healthy diet 
  • Getting a reasonable amount and type of exercise 
  • Finding opportunities for connection and relaxation
  • Seeking and taking advantage of support and resources

Having faced my own mortality more than once, I’ve learned that dealing with cancer is one of the most difficult things a person can face. If you’re in this situation, don’t feel pressured into falling into the “battle” metaphors or other expectations often inadvertently placed on people coping with a cancer diagnosis. You need to face this phenomenon in a way that feels right for you. The considerations above helped me, and I wanted to share, in hopes of helping someone else who may be struggling.