A-Z of Blogging: J is for Journey #AtoZChallenge


26 posts. 26 days. 26 letters of the alphabet, one blog post beginning with each letter.

J is for Journey

I am sensitive to the language used to describe the cancer experience, and I try to reflect this in the way I speak and write about cancer. There is one word I use though that causes some push-back in the community – journey.

Many people write and say to me (often quite vehemently) that this is not a word they want to hear used to describe cancer. And of course, I totally get that each person’s experience is unique to them and how we think, feel and describe this experience is too. The words we choose to describe illness are powerful. However, the word “journey” really does resonate with me as a metaphor for the, well.. journey, I’ve been on since I first heard the words you’ve got breast cancer.

Why we turn to metaphors

Metaphors are a fundamental mechanism through which our minds conceptualize the world around us, especially in the face of complexity. In Metaphors we live by, Lakoff and Johnson, write: “The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.” The authors argue that our conceptual systems are in fact hard-wired to operate metaphorically; that is, most concepts, particularly those that are abstract or complex, are at least partially understood in terms of other, more familiar concepts.

It’s quite common to hear people apply the metaphor of a journey to life. Journey refers to the act of traveling from one place to another. In life we are travelers on the journey from life to death, stopping off at different destinations and points along the way.  Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about finding “the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom.” A key characteristic of using the journey metaphor is that it encompasses the idea of companions, and of people with earlier diagnoses’ acting as guides.

Illness As Metaphor

I often start off talks and presentations with a quote from Susan Sontag from her 1978 seminal work Illness As Metaphor (a book she wrote while undergoing treatment for breast cancer)which made a deep impression on me when I first read it.

susan sontag

Although Sontag argued against metaphor to describe illness, the quote above is in itself highly metaphorical. Ulrich Teucher, Associate Professor of Psychology, at the University of Saskatchewan in Metaphor in crisis: The language of suffering puts forward the idea that metaphors are vehicles for understanding; mediating what is known and what is unknown.

Reisfield and Wilson in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, write:

The journey metaphor is so universal, and its referents so engrained in most cognitive lexicons, that it can be readily overlaid on lives that have been radically altered by cancer. And it may be particularly applicable to cancer in the 21st century, where the disease has largely been transformed from an acute event to a chronic illness, enmeshed in life narratives that may span years or even decades.  It allows for discussions of goals, direction, and progress. Quieter than the military metaphor, it still has the depth, richness, and gravitas to be applicable to the cancer experience.

Being diagnosed with breast cancer was a major diversion in my life’s journey. My expectations of the direction my life was “meant to” go in were profoundly disrupted.

Again, from Reisfield and Wilson:

The cataclysm of a cancer diagnosis can compel patients to examine the authenticity of their journeys. The exigencies of serious illness can force them to exit the freeway of life on which they had been traveling, often on “cruise control,” often at high speed, often with little thought of anything but arriving at the next destination. The freeway image is typically one of getting to some future state rather than living in the present. The alternate byways imposed by serious illness may involve suffering and uncertainty, but these may be tempered by the discovery of new sources of meaning; wells of courage, strength, and determination; and opportunities for personal growth. The metaphor encompasses possibility: for exploration, struggle, hope, discovery, and change.

I know that the last part of this quote will not resonate with everyone, but for some, it is their truth.

In a painting entitled Journeys by Madeleine Schachter, JD,  assistant professor in the Department of Medicine, Division of Medical Ethics, at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, the artist uses colour and movement to “convey a patient’s sense of striving, aspiration, and optimism.”


AMA Journal of Ethics, April 2019

Finally, this particular point made by Reisfield and Wilson resonates with me very much: “Importantly, the journey continues throughout cancer treatment and beyond.” I feel cancer is still a journey I am on. It’s a journey without end.

The roads may be bumpy and poorly illuminated at times, and one may encounter forks, crossroads, roadblocks, U-turns, and detours. The pace, route and destinations of the journey may change, sometimes repeatedly. The road may not be as long as one had hoped, and important destinations may be bypassed.

Over to you

I’d love to hear from you on this. Do you use metaphors to describe your cancer experience? Does the journey metaphor resonate with you? Or do you really hate it? Please let me know your thoughts on this topic in the comments below.