The words we use matter. Especially when discussing subjects that inform end-of-life decisions. Today, Oisín Liam Power, Irish writer and film maker, tells us about the inspiration behind his new short film – and why metaphorical war language should be carefully considered if used in discussions about cancer.
September 2019. I got the call: I had to come home, my mum Mary was dying. I booked train tickets from Newcastle to the Wirral and ordered a camera, direct to my family home, determined to film as much of the next few days (it turned out to be ten) as possible. Why? Because Mary and I were part way through a short film about one of our shared dislikes: metaphorical war language often used to describe her inflammatory breast cancer.
When undergoing her final wound changing – a painful, laborious process – Mary was determined to be filmed. She wanted to help me continue the film, allowing me to collect hours of footage, from which I would eventually sculpt a narrative shape. This was consistent with Mary’s behaviour, ever since her cancer became ‘incurable’ two years previously. I remember thinking that Mary took a lot upon herself: she shocked her undertakers by turning up to plan her own funeral; she decided, having let every type of available chemo run its course, that she didn’t want to ’try’ them again; even two days before she died, having spent her career as a community pharmacist, Mary was requesting specific dosages of medication, to which her GP obliged.
Mary Lost Her Battle was intended to build on a different short film that I made while in university, which explored my feelings of anticipatory grief – a term I only recently learned thanks to the Good Grief Festival. Whereas the university film looked at Mary’s illness from my perspective, Mary Lost Her Battle aimed to give Mary herself a voice. Of course, we hadn’t planned for her to die during the filmmaking process. Mary’s death left me unsure about how to represent her, given that she couldn’t comment on her portrayal in the film. I didn’t touch any of the footage for months, letting the idea ruminate while grieving with my family.
Eventually, I began painstakingly categorising the footage I’d collected. Although the film is only five minutes long, over a hundred hours’ worth of footage had to be sorted through. During this process, I rediscovered an old interview I had conducted with Mary when I was making my first short film at university. Here, Mary expressed how, by rejecting war language, she was allowing herself to make decisions untainted by subtle pressures and expectations to ‘fight’. War language isn’t just an issue of semantics. It affects attitudes to treatments and end-of-life choices, which David J Hauser discusses in his starkly named paper Battle metaphors undermine cancer treatment and prevention and do not increase vigilance.
Mary understood what she wanted to do with her remaining time on the planet, and she had a brilliant multi-disciplinary palliative team who supported her decisions. Sifting through the footage, I appreciated what Mary’s decisions meant to all of us. Despite suffering from immense pain, she was able to die in her own home, surrounded by friends and family, after enjoying a last meal of afternoon tea and ice cream.
Mary was empowered to die a death on her own terms. I now appreciate the preparation work, and external support, needed to make that happen.
Links and resources:
- Watch Mary Lost Her Battle here.
- Let Oisín know what you think about this film here. Any feedback would be gratefully received and will help inform his future work.
About the author:
Oisín Liam Power is a second-generation Irish writer and filmmaker. He grew up on the Wirral and has since moved to Newcastle, where he completed a Master’s in Creative Writing. He works across various forms: prose, film, script and poetry. And he draws heavily upon personal experience to create realistic, relatable narratives. Twitter: @oisinliampower. Instagram: @oisinliampower.
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