Words, words, words


I have quite a thing for words.  Always have had.  Ever since I was a little girl when I would have words that I would say just to myself because I liked the sound of them and the feel of them in my mouth.  I still talk to myself, although less often in public, but my love of words now is more about the language we use both verbally and written.

While I realise this is not true for everyone, I have long been disturbed by the language of cancer.  This predates my own diagnosis.  It predates my father’s.  I first became aware of it as a nurse in the 1980s.  The terminology is frequently filled with bloodthirsty violent imagery: battles are fought, diseases are beaten, patients are brave hero warriors, those who die have lost their battle, those who recover are conquerors or survivors.

Let me say for the record that I am none of these things.  And I do not want this language to be associated with me or my illness.  If I live, and my prognosis is good, then I will not be a survivor.  That implies I am defined by this experience and I refuse to allow cancer to do that to me.  Nor will I have fought a great battle and won triumphant.  I will have simply been fortunate enough to have a variety of cancer that responded well to the treatment given to it and was picked up early enough for that treatment to be most effective.

Equally, if I die, no one, and I repeat No One must suggest that I have lost my fight against cancer.  The outcome of this is not in my hands.  All I can do is rock up, take my meds, plough my way through as best I can.  It does not make me brave.  It does not make me a warrior.  It does not make me a hero.  It makes me compliant.  All those other words imply choice.  Someone who lays down their life for another is brave.  A daring rescue at great personal risk is an heroic act.  And, of course, a warrior is someone who chooses to fight.  I did not choose cancer.

By using such language, we unwittingly distance ourselves from what is going on.  If someone is a hero then they are extraordinary.  Surely that in itself means cancer is less likely to happen to the ordinary?  If someone loses a battle, then it must be their fault for not fighting hard enough?  I think most of the problem lies in the knowledge that cancer is still such a difficult disease to treat in the 21st century.  And none of us really know what to say.  So we resort to easy cliché without thinking it through.  I know I have been guilty of gross crassness in the past and will no doubt be so again in the future.  Having now been on the receiving end of some choice comments, I can also say it is better to say anything than nothing.  Avoiding the subject altogether is, perhaps, the very worst thing one can do.  But please, do try to leave the fighting talk to the military?  They deserve it so much more than me.


8 thoughts on “Words, words, words

  1. Bravo Helen, well said. I’ve often thought this but you have the authority to express it. We pray for peace rather than battle – and we are praying for you. There is One who has fought and won the battle for you so you don’t have to. Much love to you Helen xx


  2. I so agree with you, Helen, in my work at St Giles it was language like this that I so often heard, used by medical and lay folk alike. Tried so hard myself never to use it for all the reasons you have so eloquently stated! As ever our prayers are with you special day x


  3. Spot on as usual lovely one. Well said. You always tell it like it is. And I echo the words of Susanna above. Much love and prayers xxx


  4. Helen,
    I think you have been ‘brave’ to post these words – but I also think you are right about the way we have shaped opinion and attitudes by our use of words. Cancer IS beyond our control but, nevertheless, there is a spirit and soul dynamic in our response to it that has power. God knows – that is the best we can say. Andy and you are in our thoughts and prayers.


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