The language of cancer
Social worker, Avril de Beer, expands on how language (words and metaphors) can inspire or disempower cancer patients.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
(Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass)
Military metaphors like battle or war
Many people use words or metaphors to express their own individual experience of a cancer diagnosis and treatment. According to Dr Michelle Riba, director of the PsychOncology Program at the University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center, using military terms or metaphors can put an unfair burden on some cancer patients. However, others are motivated and inspired by seeing themselves as warriors or superheroes fighting the enemy.
In Lisa Bonchek Adams’ poem When I die, she eloquently expressed her opinion on the use of the military term battle to describe cancer: “When I die don’t say I ‘fought a battle.’ Or ‘lost a battle.’ Or ‘succumbed.’ Don’t make it sound like I didn’t try hard enough, or have the right attitude, or that I simply gave up.”
In Dr Kate Granger’s article in The Guardian (25 April 2014), she stated that her cancer had developed from within her own body, from her own cells. Therefore, she didn’t want to fight her cancer because that would mean that she was waging a war on herself.
Cancer as a journey
Professor Elena Semino and her colleagues, in the UK, conducted a study that showed that journey metaphors can demonstrate a positive, empowering approach to the cancer experience. For example, the patient is a traveller in charge of the journey.
On the other hand, journey metaphors can be used in a disempowering way. For example, the patient is a traveller on a difficult journey, or the patient has no control over the journey.
The writer Jane Cawthorne is adamant that cancer is not a journey. A journey is a trip to a holiday destination where you can relax and enjoy the local scenery. She doesn’t consider a trip to the chemo room to be a journey.
In an article published on Cancer.Net, Robert Harrison rejects the notion that he is on a cancer journey. Cancer, an unwanted companion on his life journey, is just one part of his full and rich life.
Empowering or disempowering?
It matters how metaphors are used. A military metaphor, such as battle, can give you the strength to face chemotherapy after your diagnosis. However, if it makes you feel vulnerable, as if you’re not strong enough to fight this enemy, reframe your experience to empower yourself.
Your treatment can be seen as a journey that can be shared with others who have a similar diagnosis, giving you companionship and comfort. In contrast, if you view your treatment as a difficult journey with many obstacles, it can make you feel helpless.
Words and metaphors should be used to empower patients. Health professionals should be aware of the significance of using appropriate and sensitive metaphors in relation to the illness.
Dr Riba emphasises the importance of considering the needs of individual patients with regard to how they live their lives with cancer and the use of language they can identify with.
If you’re a friend or family member of a cancer patient, it’s necessary to consider how your words or metaphors affect the people who have cancer. Listen carefully to how they are describing their cancer, or you can ask them about the terms they prefer to use.
How do you want to talk about your cancer?
It’s important to know that you can decide which words you want to use to describe your cancer experience. Paula Finestone, a clinical psychologist who works with people with cancer and their families, uses the term living with cancer. How you define your cancer and how you deal with it, is your choice.
MEET THE EXPERT – Avril de Beer
Avril de Beer is a social worker at Alberts Cellular Therapy. She is constantly looking for new ways to connect with patients and to learn more about their unique needs. She also has a private practice in Centurion, Gauteng where she counsels individuals who are experiencing major life changes.
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