The Cancer Canvas

Home / Reflections / The Cancer Canvas

Two days ago a woman with stage four oesophageal cancer wrote a heart-rending message to one of the cancer communities I participate in. In agony and believing she was close to death, she asked us if she should resort to morphine and ‘move myself on to the afterlife’ or if she should ‘keep trying’ against seemingly impossible odds. And, if so, how?

“I have a two year old son,” she concluded poignantly with seven words that carried all her anguish and grief.

Every mother among us felt our hearts break.

Her message was greeted with a flood of concern, support, compassion and camaraderie, which is why I participate in this particular group. It was also met with an overwhelming amount of advice about potentially helpful treatments and, almost invariably, entreaties to ‘keep fighting’ and not ‘give up’. Everyone is willing her to keep going, to try everything possible, to battle on and endure.

Part of me is in there with them, screaming from the margins of her young life to turn the next page of her story, to write the next chapter, to see the next birthday of her beloved son. I want her to win. To make it. To overcome.

And yet. Is there a finer, more freeing wisdom whistling through the winds of our collective compassion that may pull her from the sinking sands of despair? Does part of her need to hear that it’s ok to let go, to surrender rather than fight and to know such a choice bears the hallmark of courage not defeat? Does her soul need assurance that dying is not giving up, but giving herself over to That Which Is? That to die is not to abandon her beautiful boy, but to entrust him to That Which Continues and the legacy of love she will leave him? That death is not failure and can be chosen as surely, and as heroically, as we can choose to ‘fight’?

Since last I blogged David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Terry Wogan have all died of cancer in fairly quick succession. Each of them chose to keep their illness a secret from the public, each of their legacies is extraordinary and each of their deaths was reported as ‘having lost his brave battle with cancer’. This is the language we use, over and over. War zone. Battleground. And the ones who die lose.

This way of framing the cancer experience, this familiar yet insidious undermining of the many nuanced victories that colour their journey from diagnosis to death, seriously pisses me off. It does no justice to the likes of Bowie, who brought the same creative genius to his disease and dying as he had to living, making of it something awe-inspiring and remarkable, laying cancer out like a perfect canvas for his final work of art. That isn’t losing. That’s winning. That’s winning big.

Cancer is an illness not an enemy. And like all illnesses it is drawing our attention to what is out of kilter in our minds, hearts, bodies and spirits. As I said in my book, “If cancer is the enemy, we are either its victim or its attacker. There is a wall between us, but no door. No dialogue. No listening to what cancer has to teach us. No chance of reconciliation or peace.”

In part, I wrote my book to change this extremely limiting way of relating to cancer. It constructs a succeed-or-fail framework, narrowing the narrative into a thin corridor of choices between winning and losing, beating and being beaten, fighting and giving up. And it sets aflame a global gallery of canvases upon which millions of cancer patients have painted their exquisitely personal, painful and awe-inspiring works of art.

When a young mother reaches out to a group of people who might just recognise the razor sharp cut of her harrowing plight to ask if she should stay or go, how will we answer? How will we make it as ok for her to let go as it is for her to keep going? How will we carry her off the noisy battlefield and turn her attention inwards to the Silence that holds her answers? How will we help her win, whatever she chooses and however the tide turns?

Perhaps it begins with the admission that we have no adequate answers – and with the willingness to shed our own fear of finding ourselves in her position before we say anything at all. Perhaps it is better to ask what sorrows are lodged in her diseased gullet and make our ears safe vessels for her response. Perhaps we simply need to say, “Stop fighting and start listening…to your body’s wisdom, your heart’s longing and the still small voice within.”

Whatever she chooses – and whatever chooses for her – let us not say she won or lost the battle. Let us stand before her unique canvas and admire her artistry. Let us honour her opus. And let us all learn the art of winning even when we lose.

Share this post:
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on Pinterest


  • Denise Roberts
    2nd May 2016, 4:20 am  Reply

    I was diagnosed in 2012 with a large tumour on my adrenal gland it was removed. Since then 3more tumours have Been removed. Now I have metates in the liver. Had to go out to Germany for a trail drug funded by ourselves nothing more in UK that can be done.waiting to see if the tumours have shrunk. Living my life as best I can with wonderful support from family and friends. Loved reading your book.

  • Eileen
    1st May 2016, 11:39 am  Reply

    Hi Sophie
    Having just read your amazing book I feel I can be a better support and friend for my two dear friends who are going through endless treatments and emotional turmoil any words of wisdom from a woman like you is so welcomed your writing is beautiful and I am so grateful that you wrote this beautiful and most informative book .

    Thank you

  • Claire Carruthers
    29th Mar 2016, 6:14 pm  Reply

    Such deep and welcome wisdom.

  • 19th Feb 2016, 9:34 pm  Reply

    Thank you for this Sophie. Precious reminders of the surrendering that can come just prior to departure.

  • joe smith
    18th Feb 2016, 9:49 pm  Reply

    I know this woman, she taught a beautiful course on living and was full of love and wisdom, she will be alive in me and when i pass she will be alive in whatever takes my energy.

  • Anja
    18th Feb 2016, 7:03 am  Reply

    Am so glad you started writing… you had always wanted. You write so beautifully, inspirationally, am in awe. There are only very few people who use language so elegantly, use metaphors in the right places, paint pictures through words – you are amazing. Lots of love and enjoy Morocco

  • Pam Barmby
    18th Feb 2016, 6:12 am  Reply

    So eloquent, so gracious, such a delicate touch. Much love to you Sophie.

  • Lydia Dickinson
    17th Feb 2016, 10:08 pm  Reply

    Sophie, I so understand this idea and concept I had fleeting ideas about it in the past when people always referred to cancer as “a battle’ – surely a deeper personal understanding of this and a conversation would win over the negativity of “battle” (being AGAINST) – your writing is helping me (and god knows how millions of others) grasp this brave but astonishing truth. Love you so X

  • Prue
    17th Feb 2016, 8:18 pm  Reply


  • Maggie Baldwin
    17th Feb 2016, 7:12 pm  Reply

    Oh Sophie, I hope she reads that. I feel that if I were her, your words would come as a dignified relief and release.

  • Virginia
    17th Feb 2016, 6:24 pm  Reply

    What a well written piece.

    I have cancer and I am not it’s victim and it’s my second time and this time my approach has not been about fighting but simply living and enjoying the life I have. It’s so important to enjoy the people and life and letting go can be a part of this

    Thanks again for sharing your journey with us

  • Mary Caroe
    17th Feb 2016, 6:23 pm  Reply

    Sophie i do love not only the way you write but the prose you choose so carefully and the wisdom of your thinking.
    How are you?
    Love Mary

Leave a Comment