Rejecting cancer language in terms of winning, or losing

“Why do you suppose when a person dies from cancer they say he lost the battle?” My then seven year old 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. 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 are so sorry your son lost the fight."


Every day since I have begun to witness 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 we must challenge and reject cancer language and cliches that define life and death in terms of winning, or losing. 


First published at Candlelighters, American Childhood Cancer Foundation