True Grit


I remember when I first heard the word ‘cancer’ it was in 1964 and I was seven. I was brought up on cowboy films and it was probably from here that I developed my love of horses and an affinity for the underdog, the under-dog being the ‘Injuns’ over the ‘land stealing cowboys’.

John Wayne’s ‘True Grit’ was one of my favourite films and his character, Rooster Cogburn, was one of the few cowboys I liked. He was the unwilling ‘good guy’ and I thought he was funny with his black eye-patch and the way he rode his horse, reins between his teeth and a rifle in each hand. He was a big man and a big star so it came as an equally big shock when he announced that he had cancer. I believe it was John Wayne who first coined the phrase ‘The Big C’, that was his way of demeaning and trivialising the disease.


I would occasionally hear my parents discussing John Wayne and his cancer but I had no idea what cancer or The Big C was. In fact, I wasn’t actually sure if it was something bad that he had, or something bad that he had done but whatever it was, cancer was something to be avoided.

Years later, I was to get my own Big C. Have you ever heard the phrase “Gripped with fear”?  you see it in novels but I have always thought of it as nothing more than that, ‘a phrase, an expression or saying,’ until that is, a couple of days after my own breast cancer diagnosis. I had already gone through the initial shock and was in that numb place while you are waiting to hear what the next stage will be. Pretending to the world that I was fine,  I had overheard a conversation that had nothing to do with me but they said that word – , cancer. Suddenly and without warning, I was quite literally, ‘Gripped with fear.’  it felt like a big iron belt had been strapped to my torso, tightening around my rib cage until I couldn’t breathe. This unexpected and excruciating pain terrified me, I was convinced that I was about to die, right there, right then. Obviously, it was some kind of panic attack, lasting for just a few minutes but a few minutes of absolute terror. On reflection, it was as ridiculous as it was terrifying. Ridiculous that I had been scared half out of my wits by a word, a simple six-letter word, C -A- N- C- E- R.

So here’s my idea, why don’t we find a new name for ‘It’.  I reckon that if we dilute its name, we can dilute its grasp on our conscious and our lives, at the same time diluting its power.  Years ago, a cancer diagnosis was a death sentence but today, with earlier detection and better care, it is not the killer it once was. Yes, it still takes far too many lives but we can’t allow it to carry the same stigma of old, a stigma that can cripple you with the mere mention of its name.  Being positive and confident can play a huge part in both the mental and physical journey  but if cancer has a head start by stabbing you in the back with its bayonet of fear at the mere mention of its name, then it has already taken the first battle and depleted half your army.

Some people have been known to name their tumour, these are good war tactics, ‘be-friend the enemy’. But why not go a step further and make the enemy sound weak and insignificant, making it appear to have no place in our thoughts. Let’s call it ‘Who?’ or ‘What?’ (the question mark would form part of the spelling) A recognised facial expression should also be adopted  when using the word, so whenever it is used in a sentence, the eyebrows should never be lowered but always raised in cheerful surprise and the glimmer of a confident smile must begin to form on the lips of both those using the word and of those hearing it.

Maybe we could call it ‘Blip’ implying  a short break in normal service. Or how about ‘Jester’ as in clown or comedian, a thing to be laughed at and not taken seriously. Because that is what we all need to do, laugh in the face of cancer. Make it shrivel with shame and slink away in ridicule back to its own dark corner.

John Wayne was a big and imposing character, a man not to be messed with. However, let’s not forget that John ‘Duke’ Wayne was actually christened Marion Morrison. Yes, Marion!   Somehow, I don’t think anybody would have been scared of a cowboy called Marion. The big man himself tried to deflect from the word cancer, referring to it instead as the Big C.  We are consistently being equipped with more and better weapons to fight the fight so maybe now  is the time for us to come up with a new and completely different name, one that will show that nasty, devious disease that we are not afraid of it.

Please don’t misunderstand me, I know this is a war that many will not win and there will be those whose battles, though bravely fought, will be futile and it is for these people that we should join forces, take the reins between our teeth and with all guns  blazing, show cancer that we too are made of ‘True Grit’


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