Dana Jennings, a reporter at the New York Times, has been chronicling his diagnosis and treatment for prostate cancer. This week, though, he wrote about language:
We’re all familiar with sentences like this one: Mr. Smith died yesterday after a long battle with cancer. We think we know what it means, but we read it and hear it so often that it carries little weight, bears no meaning. It’s one of the clichés of cancer.
It is easy shorthand. But it says more about the writer or speaker than it does about the deceased. We like to say that people “fight” cancer because we wrestle fearfully with the notion of ever having the disease. We have turned cancer into one of our modern devils.
But after staggering through prostate cancer and its treatment — surgery, radiation and hormone therapy — the words “fight” and “battle” make me cringe and bristle.
Jennings's article appeared on Page 5 of the Science Times section. This headline appeared on Page 1 of Science Times: "In Cancer Fight, Teenagers Don't Fit In."
All good points, well made. But the example "Mr. Smith died yesterday after a long battle with cancer" also embodies one of my least favorite media clichés. Jennings is right that this awkward, oh-so-delicate construction "says more about the writer or speaker than it does about the deceased." It makes me wonder why news reporters seem to find it offensive to say that someone died of cancer or was killed by cancer or even the now-rare "succumbed to cancer." Instead they have to say "died after a long battle with cancer." This kind of construction distances the death from its cause. As a matter of fact, it leaves open the possibility that the person had a long battle with cancer, won it, and feeling quite chipper, walked out of his house one morning and got run over by a garbage truck.
Posted by: Bob Cumbow | March 17, 2010 at 11:04 AM
People also die from a "massive heart attack" or a "massive stroke". A small heart attack or stroke can be fatal, and in most cases no one knows the details for a while anyway. But if the person died, it must have been "massive". It's coming to be a synonym for "fatal".
Posted by: Tim H | March 17, 2010 at 01:10 PM
Back when I was a newspaper copy editor, we always used "a long illness" as a euphemism for cancer. "Died suddenly" meant heart attack.
Posted by: Nancy Friedman | March 17, 2010 at 04:06 PM
As a reader I prefer " a long illness" with my morning coffee and the gory details later on in the day, but not just before bed.
Posted by: Nick | March 17, 2010 at 05:39 PM
One could die suddenly also in a car accident.
Posted by: May | March 19, 2010 at 11:02 AM
I think this is a celebration of autonomy: fighting suggests safeguarding (trying to ) one's autonomy, I think. The idea of succumbing does not fit in with our mental image of human autonomy. Or that is at least what I now think.
Posted by: JanG, Belgium | March 21, 2010 at 07:58 AM
My wife died of cancer nearly three years ago. Her pet obituary peeve was the line about how the decedant "never complained." She would get furious about that--as if in the end you get extra points for not complaining. Why shouldn't someone dying of cancer complain? Seems pretty understandable.
Posted by: Bruce Good | March 22, 2010 at 10:19 AM