There's a group at work trying to get sponsors for some sort of bicycle ride to end cancer. They're put up posts encouraging us, "Let's get together to kick cancer's ass!"
Confronted with this piece of braggadocio, I realized that I've heard this "kick cancer's ass" formulation before, particularly in referring to someone who's survived cancer. It appeals to the wise-cracking action-movie sort of martial spirit. And it's not as if people who have cancer, or have a loved one with cancer, can't use something to pick up their spirits a bit.
Still, while as someone who has lost a loved one to cancer I can understand the sentiment at a certain level, I don't like it. And indeed, it's because of having lost my father to cancer eight years ago.
The thing is, you can't kick cancer's ass. Cancer is not an opponent whom you can defeat by being one tough mofo. Cancer is part of your body growing uncontrollably, in a way that can threaten your health and life. To say it's impersonal misses the point a bit -- obviously having part of your own body turn against you and try to kill you seems rather personal -- but certainly cancer is not a person. As with many diseases, hope and determination can help in recovery. But survival is also (indeed mainly) a matter of at what stage of development the cancer was discovered, how susceptible it is to treatment, and luck.
You can have a great attitude and still die. You can have a terrible attitude and survive. Surviving doesn't mean that you're so tough that you kicked cancer's ass -- it just means that you survived.
The odd thing is, that the slogan seems to turn cancer survival from a fact into a virtue by applying to it a veneer of martial glory. To be a "cancer survivor" sounds passive. No, you didn't just survive, you kicked cancer's ass, you big bad cancer warrior, you. But the claim to have achieved martial glory through sheer badassery is itself a distortion. A soldier can decide whether to act with bravery or not, but he can't decide whether or not to survive. Too much of that is the result of chance. In war, the survivor may have survived not because he was big and bad, but simply because he was a couple feet in the right direction at the right moment to not get killed. The cancer survivor, likewise, does not survive because he or she is simply too tough to be killed. He survives because that is how chance and fate worked out. The amount of bluster applied has nothing to do with it.
Dealing with cancer is a brutal physical and spiritual struggle. It requires hope and fortitude. But having hope and fortitude does not guarantee survival. Simply dealing with the day to day experience of cancer requires hope and fortitude. Surviving (whether in the sense of gaining a remission for some length of time or of living on to eventually die of something non-cancerous) is not primarily the result of however much of these virtues one may have. It is the result of whatever we call the design of the universe: fate, chance, providence.
I believe that God knows all things and created all things. That's why I believe that our lives have meaning, whether we die of cancer or of something else (for one thing is certain: we all die.) But I don't think that God rewards or punishes us for how tough we are or aren't by deciding whether we shall survive cancer.
We don't have control over whether we survive something like cancer. We only have control over how we face it.