I didn’t watch the ESPYs last night, but while skimming through the highlights this morning, I came across ESPN sportscaster Stuart Scott’s acceptance speech for the Jimmy V Perseverance Award. The award is named for Jim Valvano, a college basketball coach and ESPN broadcaster who died of bone cancer in 1993. Scott was diagnosed with appendiceal cancer in 2007, for which he continues to receive treatment.
The media is all over the speech today. BuzzFeed calls it an “Inspiring Speech About Fighting Cancer.” ABC News grabs its readers with the headline, “Why ESPN Anchor Stuart Scott Refuses to Let Cancer Win.” The Huffington Post says Scott is “bound and determined to beat cancer.”
These summaries match the tenor of the approximately six-minute prerecorded video that preceded Stuart’s speech. Introducing the video, Kiefer Sutherland offered accolades: “Like the great man this award is named for, Stuart has never, ever given up.” The narrator repeats, “Giving up has never been an option for Stuart … He has refused to back down.” And in case the message wasn’t clear, “Stuart would not allow the disease to dictate how he lived.”
Cancer is a “battle.” People with cancer are “fighters,” and if they don’t die from the disease, they are “survivors.” These are not just the words this video uses, but the words most people in our culture use to talk about the disease. So what’s the problem? The problem is one of language. We have a tendency to foist heroism upon people with cancer in a way that might, at first glance, seem generous and celebratory. But it can also be damaging.
I have never had cancer. I come at this from the perspective of someone who has lost people close to me to cancer, most notably my mother. I make this argument because it is the one she would be making to me on the phone today, if she could. I’m sure there are people with cancer who appreciate the gladiatorial allegory. The everyday struggles people with cancer face—from the incapacitating side effects of treatment to the occasional proximity of death—may share more than a bit of common ground with actual soldiers fighting a war. And when I watched my mom face the disease, the word “fight” did, indeed, often strike me as an apt description of her efforts to get out of bed or eat a spoonful of yogurt.
But saddling people with cancer with Herculean expectations fails to acknowledge that it is absolutely normal to feel afraid, to feel like you can’t go on, to actually want to give up. And sometimes making this choice—if it can even be called that—is an OK thing to do, a humane response to an inhumane situation. The myth of the cancer warrior, as Meghan O'Rourke wrote in Slate a few years back, treats fear as failure and forces those who are afraid into the shadows.
So I felt a sense of relief when, after I’d rolled my eyes for the 10th time, the video ended and Stuart took the stage—and, over the course of seven minutes, deconstructed much of the mythology that the video had propagated. Not all of it, but a lot of it.
“I’m not special.” This was the first bit of debunking Scott offered. It reminded me of the bewilderment my mom expressed at being treated as some sort of superhuman saint. “Wouldn’t you get up every morning and take your meds and deal with the side effects?” she’d ask. “Wouldn’t anyone?” Scott’s disavowal of exceptional status reminds us that people with cancer should be treated not as demigods but as people.
Of his refusal to stop fighting, Scott said, “I gotta amend that.” First he tackled the problem with setting up a win-loss dichotomy of cancer outcomes. “When you die,” he said, “that does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live.” Inspiring, I thought. But what about when you simply don’t have it in you anymore to live like there’s no tomorrow? My mother lamented towards the end of her life, “Everyone always says to make the most of your time, but they don’t tell you that you won’t have an ounce of energy to do it with.”
Scott addressed this, too. “When you get too tired to fight, then lay down, and rest, and let somebody else fight for you.” He told the audience that despite his dapper appearance (my words, not his), he’d spent the last week in the hospital. He “crashed.” He “didn’t even know if [he’d] make it here.” He “couldn’t fight.” This guy who the video showed in the (literal) boxing ring, and on the sidelines of his daughter’s soccer game—even this guy sometimes can’t fight. The world needed to hear that. Scott’s public ambivalence about the superhero cape he’s been given was a gift to all those who don’t always feel like superheroes.
There was still plenty of battle talk, but I don’t blame Scott for that, for two reasons. The first is that he is a dad, by all appearances thinking of his daughters before himself. If his outward show of strength is an effort to help them feel less afraid, then I applaud him for it. And second, I don’t blame anyone for their battle talk. The metaphor has taken hold. It’s reinforced in everyday patterns of speech, and little has been done to dismantle it.
But it should be. People should be aware of the flipside to this habit of hero-worship and think about other ways to talk about cancer. Thank you, Stuart Scott, for your honesty and bravery, and for being honest about not being brave all the time.