By Gwen Darien
Reclaiming Words, Reclaiming Metaphors
By Gwen Darien
Ten years ago, standing in front of the Taj Mahal in the early morning, I finally understood the meaning of the word awesome. A few hours later, sitting on a bench in silent and windy Fatehpur Sikri, an abandoned city nearby, I understood what sublime really meant. Potent words, their meaning had been trivialized by common usage and pop culture repetition.
This trip to India, just five years after my 1993 diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, focused—like many journeys that I took in the first few years after my diagnosis—on reclamation: reclamation of health, life, friendship, love. Likewise, much of my life after diagnosis has been about the redefinition of meaning—of words, life, work, expectations.
Words are singularly powerful; metaphors can be extraordinarily illuminating. By reclaiming some of these words and metaphors from their everyday usage, we may be able to gain deeper meaning and understanding from our experiences of life before and after a cancer diagnosis. One of the most direct examples is the war metaphor that’s frequently used, and often debated, as a description of both personal and societal approaches to dealing with cancer.
In the current issue of CR, Damaris Christensen speaks of the transformative nature of two powerful words that are often tossed around without much thought of their full meaning: hope and faith. (See “Journeying With Hope.”) Who among us has been diagnosed with cancer, or has had a loved one diagnosed with cancer, and has not felt that instantaneous disruption of our world in the moments after the doctor delivered the news? Most cancer survivors have a story to tell, and as Christensen writes in her essay, often it’s a nuanced story of the hope and faith that helped the person cope with the lack of a clear path forward. “I think hope is a constantly changing course,” Suzanne Lindley, a colon cancer survivor, told her. There may be “hopes inside of bigger hopes: hope for a cure, hope a scan goes OK, hope a transplant goes OK, hope you stay stable, hope to see your daughter graduate from high school. … Hope can come in the form of good treatment, a sunny day, a peaceful death.”
Rescuing hope and faith—whether faith with a big “F” or a small one—from the superficial way they are often discussed can help show us the many paths that are possible after cancer. Before my diagnosis, I never gave much thought to these words. But then, I met women with metastatic cancer who redefined hope, much as Lindley does, as relative, but motivating and comforting. On other occasions, I met long-term survivors whose religious faith supported them through frightening diagnoses and difficult treatment without the supportive drugs that are now routinely used in cancer care. Hope is a big, important word for me now: hope that I’ve learned how to live with the uncertainty of being a cancer survivor, hope that I know how to determine what is truly meaningful in life. Faith, for me, has a small “f”—faith in my good health, faith in the future. Fifteen years after my diagnosis, I’m very attached to both words and to the many paths they illuminate.
(Photo by Danny Wilcox Frazier)