I have long hated the analogy of going through a war when someone is diagnosed with cancer. ‘He’s battling cancer.’ ‘She is a fighter.’ ‘They beat cancer.’ Those phrases all indicate that if you are a strong enough person, the cancer won’t kill you. I know that it is said so that people have more of a sense of control when you are dealing with this devastating disease, but to me, it really feels like saying those who die from cancer didn’t ‘fight’ hard enough.

I have had many family members suffer from cancer. Both of my parents were diagnosed with cancer when I was in high school. In addition to that, my maternal grandfather and uncle had cancer as well as my paternal grandmother, grandfather, aunt and cousin. All together, that makes 8 close family members. Three of those people (my mother, maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother) all died from their cancer. Were they somehow less strong than the five who went on to survive? The answer, of course, is that they weren’t less strong. In fact, two of the strongest women I have ever known were my mother and grandmother. All of that strength could not ‘beat’ breast cancer. 

Today’s guest, Melissa talks about her daughter Isla and their journey with cancer. Melissa’s husband, Mark, has known great loss in his life which is in many ways similar to my own. At the age of 18, his mother died of cancer and 15 years later, he lost his first wife to pancreatic cancer. He had witnessed first-hand the two women that he loved most in life ‘battle’ cancer and die. The pain was devastating and excruciating. When he found himself in love once again and wanting to marry, he struggled with the idea of even wanting to have children. What if it happened again? Could he possibly going through the great pain of loss a third time?

It certainly did not seem possible that Melissa and Mark would be put through that deep pain of cancer again, but when their firstborn daughter, Isla, was barely a month old, they were given devastating news. Isla had a brain tumor. The thing that Melissa thought would be impossible was happening. For Mark, the nightmare was starting again.

Isla’s brain tumor was inoperable and aggressive. Melissa says that after she was diagnosed, you could really see her worsening each day. Within a matter of days, she lost vision in one eye and then the other. She had a stroke after her tumor biopsy and began to have seizures. Without a doubt, cancer was going to kill Isla. No matter how strong she was or how much her parents loved her, this was not a question. Although surgery and radiation were not options for Isla, doctors did offer chemotherapy for the tumor. Chemotherapy would almost certainly not be curative, but perhaps it could give her a bit more time.

Initially, both Mark and Melissa agreed to chemotherapy, but as the day to begin approached, they began to wonder if this was the right decision for Isla, if this was a ‘war’ worth fighting. After asking every doctor on Isla’s team, Mark and Melissa each came to the conclusion that this was not the right choice for their sweet baby, Isla. It would not significantly increase the length of her life and would significantly worsen the quality of her life.

They decided to take her home, hold her, love her and make memories with her for as long as they had. That is, in my mind, the bravest and strongest decision that they could have made for little Isla. Just because they could have started chemotherapy and the ‘fight’ against cancer, sometimes that fight is not worth fighting. Sometimes what you lose is not worth the little bit of time you may gain.

I am not saying to never let someone hang onto the hope that their loved one is a ‘fighter’ and thus has a better chance to ‘defeat’ cancer than the statistical odds they are given. If it gives them more of a sense of control in an uncontrollable situation, it may be worth it, but try not to go too far with that analogy. We certainly never want patients or parents to think that somehow, they are not ‘fighting’ hard enough. Suffering from cancer is hard enough without adding guilt on top of it. There are many strong, amazing adults and children who die from their cancer, and they aren’t any less strong or amazing than anyone else. Just ask Melissa and Mark.