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Finding the Right Words to Talk About Cancer

  • When someone we know is diagnosed with cancer, many of us don’t know what to say—and fear saying the wrong thing. Suddenly, we’re speaking in metaphors. We talk about warriors and survivors. They’re heroes fighting a cancer battle.

    Cancer patients themselves can sometimes struggle with how to talk about the disease or how to describe the challenges of a diagnosis or treatment.

    Masculine, militaristic language, which is commonly used when talking about cancer, can be empowering. It’s meant to be positive and evoke support. But it doesn’t work for everyone with the disease. Plus, these terms are often at odds with how cancer is now often treated as a chronic condition.

    The language used around cancer is a hot topic. Here are a few things to consider whether you’re someone with the disease or someone trying to help a friend or loved one with it.

    When you have cancer

    It’s important to know that you can take control of the words used about your cancer experience.

    Language is a personal preference. Using military metaphors (waging a warconquering cancer) may help you manage your disease day-to-day and give you a common language to share with your family, friends and health care team.

    But it’s also OK if you prefer not to use a these metaphors to describe what you’re going through.

    “For some people, it can seem like if you don’t battle your cancer and if you’re not a warrior, you’re not doing it right,” said Paula H. Finestone, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center who works with people with cancer and their families.

    “One of the terms I tend to use a lot is to simply say, ‘living with cancer,’” she said. “I have used the term ‘survivor,’ but I’ve met people who say they don’t particularly care for that term because it brings up survivor guilt or implies they did something magical to get themselves to survive.”

    Talk to your care team, family and friends about how you’d like to discuss your cancer. How you deal with cancer—including the words used to describe the experience—is up to you.

    “It’s perfectly OK to say, ‘You know, I prefer to call it my cancer journey,’ or ‘I prefer to call it following the treatment plan because I don’t see myself as an aggressive person,’” Finestone said.

    When a friend or loved one has the disease

    If you sometimes find yourself at a loss about which words to use when talking to a loved one about their cancer, Finestone suggested this: Take your cues from that person.

    “Pay attention and follow the patient’s lead,” she said. “What sort of language do they use?

    Or don’t be afraid to simply ask the person about what words work best for them.

    “Even a good friend can ask, ‘How do you want to talk about your cancer?’” Finestone said. “It gives the person living with cancer a little more say in what can be a difficult time in their lives.”