Rejecting cancer cliches that deal in terms of winning, or losing

“Why do you suppose when a person dies from cancer they say he lost the battle?” My son asked. His face was pinched with confusion. I blinked in surprise.

“Don’t worry Mom, I know dying is not about losing.” And with the zeal of a kid determined to restore order to the universe he announced, “Heaven is filled with winners.”

In 1991 my seven-year-old son faced a cancer diagnosis and received medical treatment of outstanding quality. For eight years his scans were clear and he was healthy and strong again. Then in 1999, at age fifteen, the tumor recurred and he received more excellent medical treatment. Still the brain tumor gained ground rapidly.

Courage, like love, requires hope to flourish. My son found his way through the stages as they came up. He held life in his two hands and was squeezing out its sweetest juices. Having a positive attitude was important to him. As ill as he was, he gave the impression he’d outlive all of us. But suddenly his condition worsened.

Following my son's death I received stacks of cards I treasured from earnest friends. Their sweet messages almost restored my courage, yet nearly all contained the lines, "We're so sorry Jay lost the fight."

Every day since I have begun to witness numerous random acts, and lives lived for which I call winning. The child on chemo who reassures a new friend that "her hair will too grow back." The teenager who drags his IV pole from his bed to sit outside with friends. The young mother who allows a Hospice nurse to help her wash her hair and take a bath. The father, neighbor, teacher, your friends and mine—every day ordinary people are called upon to do extraordinary things, like finding pockets of happiness, reaching deep, loving wide and living a good life in the midst of a cancer diagnosis—even when sometimes it appears life is coming to a full circle closure.

Perhaps not cancer, yet each one of us will die one day. What I know for sure is my son and dozens of others I’ve loved who have lived long and short lives with cancer have proved it is time to challenge and reject cancer-cliches that speak in terms of winning, or losing. Because isn’t life about how we play the game?

First published at Candlelighters - American Childhood Cancer Foundation
Copyright © Terra Trevor. All rights reserved.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Terra Trevor is an essayist, memoirist, nonfiction and short story writer. She values the collective experience and has collaborated with other writers and is a contributing author of 10 books including The People Who Stayed: Southeastern Indian Writing After Removal, The University of Oklahoma Press, Birthed from Scorched Hearts: Women Respond to War, Fulcrum Books. 

Her memoir Pushing up the Sky: A Mother's Story about transracial adoption and raising a child with cancer and a brain tumor, is widely anthologized with excerpts included in Children of the Dragonfly: Native American Voices On Child Custody and Education, The University of Arizona Press. Born in 1953 to a mixed blood family, and raised in southeast Los Angeles, with roots in Colorado and Oklahoma, her life was divided into two seasons; winter and camping. The home she carries within is mountains and pine trees.

  • If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. —Barry Lopez, in Crow and Weasel