Cancer is Not a Journey

Cancer is not a journey. Stop with the meaningless platitudes.

Cancer is a kidnapping. A hijacking. You’re going along, living your life and BAM. A bag gets thrown over your head and you are captured and you don’t know where the hell you are going. Or you are at gunpoint, being forced to drive by someone who won’t tell you the destination or how long it will take and you’re trying not to piss yourself. Or you have been thrown out on the side of a desolate highway with no water, no food and no map. You watch the car disappear in the distance. You might die of thirst. You might die.

A random bunch of rogue cells has taken over your body against your will disrupting everything you thought you knew about how your body works and who you are. Then it forces you to go places you don’t want to be. Like chemo. In the chemo room, you try to pretend it’s normal for fluorescent poisons to drip into your arm. You learn a language that you don’t want to learn and can only really speak among other people similarly kidnapped. It’s not like going to Spain and getting to try out a few phrases from the phrasebook you bought in the airport. There are no tapas. It’s not fun. You don’t get to feel more sophisticated and cosmopolitan because of it. Just tired. And terrified. You sit in a room with other tired and terrified people who have their own fluorescent poisons dripping into them and are desperately trying to learn this language and you smile instead of scream because it’s not their fault you are there, so what’s the point of screaming? Cancer doesn’t hear you scream. It doesn’t give a fuck. It’s a fucking sociopath. Sometimes it cuts off a breast just to make a point.

You’ve been kidnapped. Your sweat has a new smell. The smell of fear. Everything tastes like metal and who cares because you can’t keep it down anyway. You are grateful when you vomit and taste bile because it means your body actually might have absorbed some food before it rejected it. You hardly sleep and when you wake up, you wake up to the realization that you have cancer. Every damn morning. Several times a night. After every nap.

You try to think of a plan to get out. There must be a way. You’ll try anything. The hucksters and charlatans come calling offering you snake oil and herbs and magic pills and you will do anything, pay anything, to be freed from this captivity. You have learned the meaning of desperate. You cry. Often. Sometimes with other people. Sometimes alone.

Cancer hijacks your body and it hijacks your voice. There isn’t a person on earth who would want to go where cancer takes them. So stop trying to make it sound like it has purpose and meaning by giving it an archetype and calling it a journey and saying those in the middle of it are brave. It’s a fucking hijacking. People who have cancer are in the middle of trauma. They are scared. They are by turns angry and in denial and grieving.

Some people don’t make it out alive. The hijacker, all hopped up on their power trip, kills them, and there will never be any justice. That’s what cancer is.

Those who live do not come away unscathed from this calamity. Every single one of them has had to face their own death. It’s not pretty. It’s not a waterfall in Hawaii. No one takes a selfie. People who have cancer have to imagine the lives of their children without them. They have to come to grips with losing everything. Some have gone broke paying the ransom. Some have PTSD.

Calling this kidnapping, this hijacking, a journey is gaslighting. Stop it. Call it what it is. Appreciate the enormity of what people with cancer unwillingly face. Of what I’ve faced. I wasn’t on a fucking journey. I was clawing my way back to life from a cave I got thrown into against my will. I have friends in the cave now. Just do me a favour and stop calling what they are facing a journey.


24 thoughts on “Cancer is Not a Journey

  1. CJ

    Cancer leaves you changed. You are no longer who you used to be. It was not my choice and it didn’t make me stronger, just different. I am angry about that. Change should be a choice. I’m not even sure I know who I am anymore.

  2. Mark Traichevich

    I didn’t ask for this but it was the hand I was dealt and I am obligated to play it through to the end. I haven’t changed too much, but I certainly view things in life much differently. Thanks for your perspective on this issue- it is how I feel as well on many of those not so good days. Stay strong.

    1. Jane Cawthorne Post author

      Thank you Mark. I am well now. Of course, cancer changed me. I am sensitive to the cliches people use about it. I have friends who are ill with it now. I send your “stay strong” message back to you and to everyone who is ill and hope that you too will one day be able to say you are well again.

      1. Mark Traichevich

        Just recovering from surgery and into the next round of chemo (9 weeks worth)…… Looking forward to a positive prognosis and a beautiful spring and summer. Cheers

  3. Faye Snider

    Jane, I am riveted by the power of your essay, Cancer is Not a Journey.” A dear friend of mine was recently confronted with a recurrence, my experience close-in, as a friend, gave all the more meaning as I read your essay. I know she will resonate as did I! I am grateful for your passion and willingness to engage.

  4. Beth Thompson

    Love your candor. Both my parents were executed by this kidnapper, and I live in fear that he has my number, too.

  5. Rose

    Thank-you, Jane. I am fortunate to never have had cancer. I have; however, lost friends and family to the sociopath. I have never bought into the journey scenario, but have never been brave enough to say what you have so eloquently said. Thank-you.

  6. Joanne

    Thank you, Thank you, Thank you! I know people need to try to make sense of this cruel disease and they say a lot of meaningless and clueless things in their desire to try to put a positive ‘spin’ on it. And while I understand that struggle to find some “meaning” (surely I can’t be tied to a runaway train) and to try to take some ‘control’ back–I too think it is important to dispense with the platitudes and call cancer what it is…”an evil kidnapping”. We lost our son to a brain tumor 19 months ago. Believe me when I tell you I did not see it as a ‘journey’. The following month my husband was diagnosed with (a different) cancer. After 11 rounds of chemo, radiation and major surgery he is continuing to recover and we do our best to put one foot in front of the other between follow-up hospital visits. We need to put an end to Cancer in all it’s forms. Let’s fund the much needed research so no one else is ever kidnapped by this odious disease. Fight on everyone. Be well.

  7. FKE

    Some readers may recall that not to many years ago “Cancer” was not a word to be spoken in public. It had, however, many whispered or written names confined to brackets ranging from (death sentence) to (the Big C)… The low tone and brackets were suggestive of a type of quarantine to keep others from getting it. It’s always been a terribly hard word to face, and most certainly a horrible disease. Everyone is entitled to their own terminology. In this writer’s humble view a “journey” is much too pleasant, soft, easy, comforting and borderline. Cancer is different for everybody, but for those who truly suffer it’s much more of a sad, draining, terrifying, and acutely painful sentence. Wishing everyone who reads this comfort, peace and good health… God bless.

  8. Elizabeth Sherwood

    Well said and oh so true! Thank you for voicing this so eloquently. Terrible things do happen and figuring out how to “move” through that should not be glamorized…it is painful, it is hard and oh how finding ourself again can seem so far, far away.

  9. Terry Szpakowski Bruno

    I don’t know you but happened here because of a friend . I was diagnosed stage 4 pancreatic with mets to liver 15months ago and the whole ‘journey’ attitude makes me sicker!
    Thanks for your words, good to know I am not just bitter lol.

  10. Brian

    Well Jane, here I am, the guy that introduces his “bloggish” type update emails and FB messages with the subjet line “Updates on my Cancer Journey”. For me identifying this as a journey is like a trip to the unknown. I think I used “journey” as it was lighter and palatable for me to say and others to hear.

    Four weeks later, it is like an alien has entered my body. I don’t know when or where, nor can I feel it nor do I receive pain from its presence. But it is there and it is feasting on me. I have to wait to see what it will do next. Will it go away? Will it play games with my body? Will it kill me? Fears every day.

    I sit in the waiting room at the cancer centre and see the hundreds of others there who have been attacked waiting in line to receive their chemical drip. It is all so surreal.

    Thanks for identifying cancer for what it really is.

    1. Jane Cawthorne Post author

      Brian, A writer I know told me this blog post was used in a writing workshop about finding words for experiences for which there are few words. The group was asked to find other words to describe cancer besides journey and it was a challenge. It’s too bad we can’t go to the actual language of cancer to describe it, but it is a language of jargon. (Incidentally, it is also highly militarized. We are in battle. Patients are brave, like soldiers. Cells are “targeted” and so on. We could discuss this at length.) Words are important. The words we choose to describe something shape our experience of it and influence the experiences of others. I resort to metaphor (another kind of deflection) and this is not ideal either. I tend to look at darker metaphors because that’s how I feel about cancer. Words like kidnapping (and maybe I should have said a home invasion–yeah, it’s a home invasion) feel more real to me. Telling the truth about one’s experience is the hardest thing to do. It is so easy to use the words of others. They are pre-packaged and ready to eat. They give us shortcuts. No time with the knife and the cutting board. And it is natural to want to soft-pedal the worst parts of having cancer so those we love don’t have to know how bad it is. I would urge everyone to find words that express their own truth. We need more words for this.

  11. Deborah McPhedran

    We don’t know each other, but my friend Bernice in Calgary, who does know of you, emailed me a copy of this post. After I had read your post three times, I noticed and clicked on the text “# replies”printed in gray and underscored just below the title “Cancer is Not a Journey” (at the time I recieved the post from my friend, it said “2 replies”) and got here to your web site . . . and a chance to say directly – Thank You – Wish I was face to face and I would hug you fiercely (unless it hurt of course)
    You have provided “more words” to use that help me to understand my reactions to my own experience of cancer – – as well as different words that help me to translate that experience to further engage the others around me (including oncology team) in more fully understanding this piece of the cancer story, which is beyond the platitudes. Your words have helped to prompt deeper conversations with those close to me. Their fears and anxieties “about doing and saying the right thing” despite my past utterances that all is fine. My bad. They are afraid. I am afraid. . . and so the conversations begin
    A gift.
    Thank you

  12. Mohan

    Thank you very much. Your writing is so powerfully truthful. Cancer is the ultimate jihadi terrorist. It’s only purpose is to take over your body and kill you, if it is successfull it too will die within 24 hours of killing you.

  13. Carla Rober

    The honest to god truth and exactly how I feel. I used to want to claw someone’s eye out when they would tell me, “oh, you’re so brave,” or “stay strong.” I literally have no other choice. I’m not brave or strong but I’ve learned I can take what life throws out and life just happened to throw me into a hell hole and hijack my life. Just like you said. I did anything I could to survive. I’m glad there are people out there who feel the same. Cancer isn’t a journey, it’s just part of life.


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