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Norm Macdonald ‘When I Hear a Guy Lost a Battle to Cancer’ Quote

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Before his cancer-related death, Norm Macdonald said "When I hear a guy lost a battle to cancer, that really did bother me, that that’s a term. It implies that he failed and that somebody else that defeated cancer is heroic and courageous."

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On September 14 2021, the death of comedian Norm Macdonald was widely reported; soon after the news broke, a purported quote of Macdonald’s about “cancer” and “battles” began circulating on Imgur:

Across news outlets, Macdonald’s death was attributed to long-term cancer, a diagnosis he did not publicly discuss. Macdonald was quoted as having said the following, with no source cited:

When I hear a guy lost a battle to cancer, that really did bother me, that that’s a term. It implies that he failed and that somebody else that defeated cancer is heroic and courageous.

Macdonald was often described as having “lost a battle” with cancer in September 2021 obituaries:

“Norm Macdonald, the legendary comedian and former Weekend Update anchor at Saturday Night Live, has died after a nine-year long battle with cancer, which was previously unknown to the public. He was 61.”

“Norm Macdonald, whose laconic delivery of sharp and incisive observations made him one of Saturday Night Live‘s most influential and beloved cast members, died [on September 14 2021] after a nine-year private battle with cancer. He was 61.”

One outlet, Indy100, published a listicle-style obituary, featuring the “lost a battle to cancer” quote among others. It began as follows:

Beloved comedian Norm Macdonald, actor, writer and one of Saturday Night Live‘s most memorable cast members, has passed away at the age of 61 following a nine-year battle with cancer.

[…]

15. “When I hear a guy lost a battle to cancer, that really did bother me, that that’s a term. It implies that he failed and that somebody else that defeated cancer is heroic and courageous.”

The quote’s emergence and attribution to Macdonald was not novel at the time of his death. A Reddit user quoted the comic in the comments of a June 2020 r/todayilearned post about using “battle” in relation to cancer diagnoses:

TIL many doctors have stopped calling cancer treatment a "fight" or "battle". They argue these terms misrepresent how treatment works and if treatments fail, the patient is left with guilt and a false belief they didn’t "fight" hard enough. from todayilearned

An initial search led to a number of citation-free meme generation websites, where the quote was broadly attributed to Macdonald — but never supported by a citation. A bit of digging turned up an original source for the quotation, in an April 2011 New York Times profile, “Sports Show Offers Comedian a Comeback”:

Mr. Macdonald didn’t rule out the possibility that “Sports Show” could take him down the introspective and at times uncomfortable paths he traveled in his Comedy Central special, “Me Doing Stand-Up,” in which he joked about a great-uncle who was dying from bowel cancer, a bit that he proudly stood by.

“When I hear a guy lost a battle to cancer,” Mr. Macdonald said, “that really did bother me, that that’s a term. It implies that he failed and that somebody else that defeated cancer is heroic and courageous.”

Even so, Mr. Macdonald realized there were parts of himself that even his stand-up audience is not ready to see.

“I took away a lot more of my existential brooding on death that I haven’t really figured out yet,” he said. “It leaves people a little sad. I have to figure out a way to work on that.”

After news broke of comedian and actor Norm Macdonald’s death from cancer on September 14 2021, memorial memes quoted the comic as saying that hearing “a guy lost a battle to cancer” bothered him, because it implied the man “failed and that somebody else that defeated cancer is heroic and courageous.” The quote appeared in a profile of Macdonald published a little over a decade prior to his death.