8 Reasons I Refuse to Battle My Disease

Battle disease seems like a bad idea to me.  The idea that waging a battle against my body will someday lead to health sounds crazy to me.  Why would we wish war on someone who already has a disease?

battle disease - my body

When I was told I had a terminal disease, the responses of my friends were telling


I know they were in mourning and that they had a deep desire that I would not have to walk this path.  So many of them would say things like:

“Fight it.”

“Find a way to get rid of it.”

“We can battle this together.”

“We will use all the weapons at our disposal.”


They spoke from the heart and I took their words as a kind of lovingkindness.  But now as I continue on this road some call chronic and fatal illness, I look back in the words of my friends, and see that they are filled with military metaphors.  Even the health care professionals spoke in the language of violence:

“…a misfolded protein is invading your body.”

“Hopefully research will anilalate the disease.”

“Perhaps by destroying rogue cells…”


How strange!  Just when I needed help to walk in a healing way, the people around me are turning to the language of war and violence.  Now this is not just my strange friends (though they are strange).  This language of violence is everywhere in our communities.  But something in me knew that metaphors of war would not help my journey of healing.


I did a little digging online to see who is thinking about this odd and pervasive mystery.  The best I found was an article in the Atlantic titled, “The Trouble with Medicine’s Metaphors” by Dhruv Khullar, M.D., a resident physician at Harvard Medical School. After surveying research on the topic he concludes that military metaphors might cause more harm than good.  What an understatement!  Here are eight reasons I refuse to battle my disease (or use the language of war to find the path of love).  These are reasons I am declaring war on declaring war on things, especially my body.


1. Battling my disease is a losing battle

For my disease, Hungtington’s Disease, there is zero probability of “winning the battle.”  The same is true for anyone with a chronic or fatal illness.  I don’t mean to alarm you but all of us are in the same boat here, as life is a fatal condition.  We all “lose the battle of life” at some point.  How is this helpful?  We are all supposed to fight but we are all losers!   Even just war theory says that a war cannot be just if there is not a probability of success.  This is war we should not be fighting.

If it is a choice between winning or losing the battle, I am a losing the battle. But I reject the… Click To Tweet

. I don’t want to spend my limited energy fighting or battling anything.  I want to enjoy the path.  I don’t even want to access the label of disease.   I want to be a Sunburst,  and learn to enjoy losing my mind.


2. Battling my disease is doesn’t work, even for those who do win

keep-calm battle diseaseThose who “win” the battle with disease often still consider themselves losers.   As more and more people are “surviving” cancer, some of the “survivors” are rejecting that name.  They feel that the term survivor does not shed light on the many ways they are still affected by by the cancer and its treatment.  My wife’s cousin is one such person.  More research is coming out on this topic. Livestrong’s research shows that  98 percent [of cancer survivors] experienced continued physical, emotional and practical concerns. Yet many did not receive help for their needs.  Even in actual wars,we are finding that the solidier’s who “won” the battle have high rates of suicide, PTSD, depression, and domestic violence.  If that’s what winning the battle looks like, I don’t want any part of it.



3. Disease is a war without an enemy

Medical studies show that those who approach their disease as an “enemy” tend to have higher levels of depression and anxiety, and poorer quality of life than those who ascribe a more positive meaning. They also tend to report higher pain scores and lower coping scores.  I used to teach peacebuilders how to decrease enemies by not cultivating in the first place, and loving them in the second place.  It is remarkable to me now to see medical scientists make the same claim about health!  Enemies are not good for us.   If I have to battle my disease, I make an enemy of own body.  This is a path that leads to depression and a poorer quality of life.  No thank you.


4. Battling my disease is feeds denial

“Your mom took denial to a whole new level.”  These words came from my Huntingon’s Disease health team.  My disease is hereditary so I have watched others with it.  My mom had one tool: denial.  For those of us around her, this denial created a wake of misery.  I vowed not to repeat that pattern.  That is why I write about facing elephants.  Over the years I have developed a nose for sniffing out denial.  I have learned I need to be careful when people tell me that I should be free of this disease.  I try to receive these comments as good wish for me.  But if I let myself, I can start down the path of denial.  Maybe there is a way to get rid of this.  Maybe some prayer, some action, some science…will free me.  For me, the path of denial leaves an empty space in which the wake of misery can gain momentum, especially for those around me.  If I don’t think I have the disease, or that I will get rid of it, then I pay less attention to living each moment with care.  For me, the battle image feeds the denial in me.  I think this is very dangerous for my family.


5. Battling my disease is inspired by a violent, colonial, macho, paternalistic view of the world

When Canada’s new Prime Minister was asked why his cabinet has equal men and women, he responded, to the cheers of crowds, “Because it is 2015.”  I feel the same way about the ways in which

bodyAtWarviolence is still embedded in our many ways of being.  There is something about the European-Caucasian way of being that has allowed violence and oppression to touch its every action.  The same violent imagination is found  in medicine, politics, theology, criminology.  Uhh, let’s find the problem and kick the shit of it.  Uhh, let’s kill the indian in the child.   Uhh, God demands bloody punishment. Uhh, what criminals need is more pain and suffering.

Canada recently had a Truth and Reconciliation commission.  We agreed to work get rid of the very imagination that inspires the grotestque ways we relate to indigenous people.  The path of reconciliation must include going back to the ways violent oppression informs all areas, including medicine, politics, theology, criminology.  So what does a healthy approach look like post-Truth and Reconciliation? We have to let go of find-problem-kill-it medicine.  We have to let go of violence-inspired medicine.  Battling my disease is not for me.  I put my hope in embracing dustness.


6.  Battling my disease serves as a blinder

Nobel Prizes in science have been given, in part, for helping their fields of science reject the mechanical understanding of life.  There are revolutions  in fields like neuroscience, quantum physics, and organizational leadership simply by rejecting the view of life as a machine. The machine metaphor was a huge blinder to them.  When the blinders were removed, new (and old) insights were able to rock their worlds.  The same is true with the assumption of violence.  It, too, is all around and blinds us from wisdom of old and the wisdom yet to come.  It hides wisdom that comes from other traditions. The battle approach is a stumbling block on this journey.  I’m letting go of the blinders and looking for wisdom, where I find it.


7. Battling my disease is a way of practicing violence

In my life I have felt deep connection to all those who show how to live without violence: Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi…  However one of my criticism of the followers of nonviolence is that they often only apply their argument to war.  But war is the .1% .  We need to see how the the practice of nonviolence informs the other 99.9% of the time when we are not directly dealing with issues of war.  How do we do medicine without violence?  How do we face into a disease without using violence?


8. Battling my disease is doesn’t leave enough room for friendship, love, and respect

“Battle” calls out hope for the wrong kind of things: violence, enemies, trauma.  My hope is not based in killing part of me.  My hope is based in the practices of letting go, celebrating each moment and learning to dance with elephants.  The medical sciences know that those with terminal disease like mine often have much higher rates of suicide.  The battle image is too much like suicide to be an antidote to it.  I choose to replace enemies with friends, fighting with love-making.


So I hope I have made it clear that the battle image seems completely unhelpful to me.  I’m very curious what you think.  Have you experienced problems with this approach?  Do you feel like it works for you?  Does it not make any difference?  Leave a comment below and know what you think.

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Posted in dementia meaning, disease, Healing Steps, Nonviolence and tagged .


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  4. Dear Jarem, Thank you for this article. It reflects so much what I’ve thought. I don’t feel brave. I don’t feel courageous. I don’t feel like a soldier fighting a fight. I’m just doing what I’ve done all my life, even before chronic illness–I do what I need to do to get through the day. Sometimes I do things out of frustration, sometimes optimistically, sometimes pessimistically, often with tons of fear. None of these fit the battle/survivor/soldier model. But I’m at peace with my status and at peace with my decisions.

  5. Although I am not personally faced with Huntington’s Disease, I have thought many similar thoughts to those of yours, starting with the premise that life itself is a fatal disease. We all have a common destiny, that of death. We differ only in the rate at which we approach it and the route we take to it, but we all end up there. I too dislike the frequent use of metaphors of war and military actions, be it against disease, a competing sports team, a corporate business. The eloquence of your writing is wonderful. Thank you for sharing your insights.

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  8. Thanks for posting your reflections on coping with a terrible disease. I have had a somewhat different experience. I got cancer, stage four 17 years ago and underwent chemo treatments repeatedly. I did not find the battle metaphor to be a problem. I did not see my body as the enemy. The body itself is designed to fight off disease and foreign “invaders”. the immune system has a huge role to play in this. My cancer has been conquered and I am grateful for that. By accepting this language I am not denying that eventually some disease is going to overcome the ability of my body to fight it and I will die. I have learned from Revelation that conquest language that was common at the end of century one and was in daily use, even inscribed on their coins, was not rejected by John but was employed by John repeatedly, (about 16 times in the book). He uses the term Nike, conquer, victory, even though in common understanding that stood for victory through violence, death and subjugation. John used the identical term but redefined it. He did not reject it. It usually meant victory by inflicting violence but he used it as victory by suffering (the Lamb that was slain). Can the language of battle not be reclaimed and redefined? I have a heart condition and a pacemaker is implanted to combat the weakness of my own heart. Paul used the language of fighting the good fight. I do not see this as a denial of being a peace maker. May you have the courage to fight the good fight against your disease. Take courage! Peace.

  9. Hi Jarem, Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I have had to struggle with cancer and have had lots of chemo. For me the fight-battle language has not been a problem. I have not seen my body as the enemy; I have not been in denial, I have viewed the medication/treatment as fighting the foreign cells that had taken up residence in my body. The body seems to be designed to fight off disease and foreign influences. Ultimately of course, everyone’s body succumbs to disease but there’s a lot of fighting going on before that happens.I have found it helpful to see that the book of Revelation uses first century battle/conquest language intentionally and deliberatively but in no way does it condone the common understandings of violence and conquest at the end of century one. The common term is Nike, used for Roman victory and conquest (engraved on their coins) but John dares to use it numerous times, but he redefines it and uses Jesus the Lamb that was slain, as the image of true victory, not the slaying kind of victory of Roman forces. The victory language is not rejected but redefined and used. With Paul I have thought of fighting the good fight knowing full well that eventually some disease or other will lead to my dying. May you have the courage to do what is possible, knowing that in the end our mortal bodies will succumb to death. Peace and courage. John H. Neufeld

  10. I too’ve hated the battling the battles perspective in my own little life “skirmishes” [more war talk intended for pun-ishness only.] Your eloquent voice has confirmed I’m no loser! My husband isn’t in denial, but doesn’t talk about his present path much. I’ve hoped for a more in-depth and regular conversation with him about things, but respect his choices. Your blog has given me a conversation buddy… even if much of the conversation stays internal. It’s still peaceful to have. And we continue to live the life we’ve got, different as it is from our past’s “futuristic” chatter.

  11. Dear Jarem,
    Thank you so much for your posts and especially this one about using war like metaphors to deal with disease. It is wonderful when someone as eloquent as yourself describes one;s own thoughts. In 2012 while undergoing treatment for non hodgkins lymphoma, I was blessed with well wishers and kindness of family, friends and strangers. Some of the well wishes also used the ‘war’ metaphors, telling me to ‘fight”, that I would ‘combat’, ‘overcome’, ‘win’. I always knew that I would never win a ‘battle’. For me there was hope of a good recovery which did occur. I focused on my body getting rest, medicine, love and kindness to heal as much as possible. I used affirmations and tried to put them into my unconscious and gave thank to all those engaged in my healing including “the holy spirit, my medical team and my family and friends that support me”. This even though I am very agnostic!
    I wish you wonderful healing and long delays in the progress in the illness that is within your body and hope that some blessed researchers will find a powerful drug to change the course of this disease. I have had reason to come across you before while researching principles of Restorative Justice and have cited you in an article in the Online Journal of Conflict Intervention (volume 2) published by Maynooth University. I love how you laugh with your daughter about naming the disease you are all coming to terms with. Love and best wishes from Catherine in Dublin, Ireland

  12. Hi Jeram Loved your thoughts shared with us. Interesting that the breakfast TV programme just this morning had an individual on that is dying and it made me very aware of the battlefield language being used.

    I think that some of the problem with the language is an assumption that if you are not ‘battling’ the disease/illness that you have ‘given up’ and that to ‘give up’ will either cause the disease or illness to speed up or you must be depressed and may look for ways to end it. While I do not know you I suspect you have not ‘given up’ on life, quite the opposite and are living it to the best of your ability while having HC. I would love to hear your thoughts on what we (everyone) need to do to replace the language and how changing the language and the thoughts behind it will affect those with disease/illness, their carers/loved ones and perhaps those looking for cures and treatments.

    i am happy you have found a way to accept, live and is enjoy the right word? your today’s – keep writing, I will be reading.

  13. Excellent article, Jarem. I too, have decided after many many years of “fighting” my chronic on-going illness – nearly 25 years, I have decided to end that. I decided that after a major relapse over a year ago after pushing and trying to ignore the reality of my situation. I decided to stop fighting, pushing. It’s what drove me to illness in the first place. So now, I apologized to my body for always pushing it beyond it’s capacities, asking it to do more and more without heeding it’s needs. I have been brain-washed by the society I live and the unrelenting demands of it. No more. My body and I are friends and I love it for where it has taken me in the past and for today and the future. As it is, I love it. Period. I have basically given up on regular white coat medicine as most doctors just don’t get it. Whatever. It’s my body and I will honour it, take care of it and go down the road with it, hand and hand, come what may. Thank you, again, for such an excellent article on this.

  14. Thanks Jarem. What a great perspective. I’ve been struggling accepting my physical limits and trying to fine ways to be at peace with myself. You are so right, we do use so many metaphors of violence when talking and thinking about disease. If we talk about chronic disease differently, then we can also look at ourselves differently as well. As we can not completely separate ourselves from the disease. I’ve often asked if I can trade this body in for another, it makes so much more sense to embrace what we have and use it as a strength. I’m looking forward to reading more. Keep writing.

  15. Jarem:

    I resonate with your blog post after facing a potentially life threatening disease- breast cancer. Having just finished six cycles of chemo and about to start 5 week of radio, I know this is really is for me just beginning to register that this is a life-long thing to worry about (and I am considered young to have this at age 44 ).

    I too can’t relate to the battlefield metaphor and its seems the cancer world it also filled with this language. I had to keep telling myself that my body is intelligent and wants to heal. I just have to help it– somehow…still working on that one.

    Thanks for writing on this topic, it helps to read about how you are facing your illness with courage —inspiring! All the best, Emily

  16. The metaphors of war — a provocative and necessary conversation. Thank you Jerem. Too many of my friends and even close family members have “fought” the disease and “lost the battle”. And they have spent thousands of dollars on “snake oil” remedies. Rather than embracing their reality, they have sadly succumbed to numerous (and bizarre) dental procedures, purges, cleanses, vitamin/mineral excesses and numerous other para-medical practices, This has not been a peaceful path to their death, but an exhausting struggle (fight) for everyone close to them. In absentia now, I shower them with love and kindness – knowing that they sincerely thought they were doing their best to “conquer” their disease.

  17. What an eloquent, spot-on collection of insights. Thank you. I am deeply touched by these thoughts. My husband died of melanoma two and a half hyears ago. He also hated the “battle” metaphor. The truth is, he said, “cancer eats you up and spits you out.” In spite of the ups and downs (more downs than ups) of the two years he lived with the disease, it became fairly clear over time that things were moving in one definite direction. He worked as long a possible (as an actor), under incredible duress. We enjoyed the little moments of life. We went to Paris for ten days. He stayed funny, and ascerbic, and kind, and thoroughly himself. We were so glad every day that he was still here. He began writing the script of a play when he could no longer act. I am finishing it now. All the best to you, Jarem and thank you again for the gifts you share. Too many think of dementia as “worse than death”. I love that you are so curious about it all. May we all be as curious and courageous as you, whatever elephants we face.

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