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For Me, Cancer Never Felt Like a “Journey”

There has been much written over the years about the choice of words used to describe a person’s experience with cancer. A debate has raged about the propriety of using the battle metaphor as well as terms like “warrior” and “survivor.”

The words we use when talking about health

My beef today is with a word that is even more deeply embedded in our societal discussions of health: the “journey.” In recent years, it seems nearly anything health-related has become a “journey.” We are on weight loss journeys, healthy-eating journeys, and cancer journeys.

Each person frames experiences uniquely

I understand and respect that each person has their own unique relationship to how they choose to frame their experience. And I can entirely understand how the word “journey” may work very well for some patients. I can understand how it is apt for someone who is likely to recover from their cancer.

I felt angry

When my husband was dying of metastatic bladder cancer, though, I felt angry anytime anyone told me about the “journey” we were on. I was tempted often to ask, “And where exactly does this journey end up? In the grave?” Describing our experience as a “journey” felt hollow and cliched at best and insensitive bordering on cruel at worst. I know no one intended for their words to come across that way.

But such is the very raw, devastating perspective of life from the not-looking-hopeful-anymore Stage IV perspective.

Emotional state impacts perspective

Today, several years after the fact, it is difficult for me to relate to just how hurtful the use of “journey” felt at the time. My emotional state is entirely different now that I sometimes feel like I was a different person during that cancer period. And in many ways, I was.

The weight of a terminal prognosis

The crushing weight that a terminal prognosis places on every aspect of life is hard to comprehend or relate to unless you’ve been through it. Everything seems supercharged – kindness, insensitivity, good news, and bad news. They all felt more extreme than they likely were.

The journey as a metaphor didn’t feel right to me

To me, a journey is a physical traveling through space and time to get from one geographic location to another. The journey as a metaphor for health is just one that I don’t think will ever feel right to me. I understand how it works for others, and I respect that. Perhaps it is because I first encountered the term during the most challenging period. It may be forever tainted in my mind.

Choosing our words carefully

It bears repeating something that we often read and hear about how to interact with those facing cancer. Think carefully and choose your words carefully. I think it is better to be honest –about not knowing what to say or about being somewhat ignorant of their unique experience – than it is to bring out a cliched phrase like a journey.

Sometimes simply being present is better than saying anything at all.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.