In this two-part series, I’m discussing how we talk about cancer—the words and terminology we use in our interactions. These are conversation “categories” that might not always be helpful to the person with cancer.
(Please read Part One.)
I remember telling a friend that I had cancer, and she yelled (literally yelled!) back at me: “No, you don’t, in Jesus’ Name.”
I’ve heard people with cancer admit to being discouraged or afraid, only to have a loved one rebuke them. “You can’t have that attitude.”
Such responses don’t encourage honesty from the person with cancer. If we know you are going to argue with us about how we feel, or what’s happening to us, we just might decide not to talk to you.
5. Empty Proclamations
Naturally, we want to believe that cancer will not take our loved one from us. We want them to know we believe in them. And we want to encourage them.
“You got this.”
“I know you’ll be fine.”
“You’ll do great.”
You are strong.”
But in truth, we don’t know what’s going to happen, or how they’ll do with the treatments, or what they will feel.
Making such definitive statements of expectations puts added pressure.
What if we’re not fine?
What if we don't "got this?"
What if we’re not doing great?
What if we aren’t strong?
As a person with cancer, I might be less inclined to talk with those who've proclaimed…in advance, how I'll do, or put their personal expectations on me about how I will/should respond.
6. Warfare terminology
The other day, I saw a headline about a “cancer victim” who was once again “battling” the disease.
The use of what I call “war” terms is another common way to talk about cancer.
We hear it all the time, in many ways:
"You'll beat this."
“He’s struggling with cancer.”
“She is strong enough to win this fight.”
“He lost his battle with cancer.”
In essence, cancer is the enemy.
I’m the soldier.
And I’m expected to be victorious.
Author’s Note: In some cases, the “enemy” is not specifically cancer, but unseen spiritual forces—the devil, demons, sin—that are the actual enemy. “Satan is attacking you; you must defeat him.”
In this scenario, I must not only endure the devastating effects of cancer and the treatments, I’m told to “put on the full armor” of God to do battle with the army of darkness. (cf: Ephesians 6: 10-18)
Or I have to discover the root cause (e.g., sin) that brought this sickness on me. (cf: Micah 6:13)
Perhaps it’s God who has allowed/permitted this malady in my life for some unknown divine reason. (The same God who won’t put more on me than I endure?)
Still, I’m expected to be a “good soldier” and prove myself a conqueror in this test of my faith.
Of course, in the case of Job, it was a concerted effort…a cosmic game of chess…between God and Satan on this man. (cf: Job 2:5-6) Job’s tragedy, and ultimate “triumph” then becomes the blueprint for how we are to respond. “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.” (Job 13:15)
Yeah, no pressure!
As I mentioned, such analogies are common. You see/hear it from medical staff, media, and possibly even a person with cancer.
I admit, I’ve been guilty of employing such images when discussing my cancer. (Hey, I’m a pacifist. You’d think I’d know better!)
I’m not here to challenge the terminology, and I’m not suggesting we correct a person who uses such words/phrases. (Especially if it’s a person who has cancer!) However, we should know that it might not be helpful.
There was an interesting study conducted by the U.K. charity Macmillan Cancer Support that showed framing cancer in “fight” or “battle” terms often makes the patient feel guilty or unwilling to admit their fears, especially if they got discouraged, if their health worsened, or if it became clear the cancer would prevail.
This terminology…this mindset…got me thinking. And led me to ask uncomfortable questions:
If I die from this disease, will I be seen as not strong enough?
Is death a defeat?
Did I not fight hard enough?
Should I have done more?
Did I not have enough faith?
Will my legacy…my eulogy…be that I’m a loser, not a winner?
Of course we want the person we love to get better, but maybe it’s best to encourage them without making it a win-or-lose contest.
Perhaps it’s better to just talk about the disease, the treatments, the effects, the prognosis, the options. Even the fears, the doubts and the questions.
The first rule of fight club is…don’t make cancer a fight club!
Cancer, more precisely, cancer treatments, usually come with devastating effects on a person’s body. Whether it’s hair or weight loss from chemo (In my case, it’s weight gain!) or the removal of body parts, it can impact how we look, and how we see ourselves. It’s awkward when someone calls attention to how we look, whether good or bad. Personally, I never know how to respond when, after learning of my cancer and treatments, someone tells me, “Well, you look great.” And personally, I get annoyed when I’m told “You don’t look sick.” (I know folks mean well, and I may be petty, but it seems dismissive of my illness. I always want to scream back: “Well, I am sick!”)
As mentioned earlier, cancer affects…and impacts…each person differently. There is no way to foresee how the disease will progress or respond to treatments. Likewise, it’s impossible to predict how someone will react to the diagnosis. For those reasons, if your loved one has cancer, it’s not helpful to barrage them with comparisons.
“I had that same cancer, and I’m fine now.”
“Radiation is a breeze.”
“I did chemo and was able to work too.”
“My grandfather died of that cancer.”
Author’s Note: Sadly, those who’ve had cancer in the past can often be the worst offenders. Just because something worked for them, they assume that’s the answer for everyone.
The “same” cancer in one person is different in another person.
And each person will respond to or react to cancer treatments differently.
Cancer is scary—for the person who has it and for their loved ones.
Talking about cancer can be uncomfortable and awkward. I can’t imagine any of us want to say the “wrong” thing.
But we don't want to avoid talking either. (I think the only thing worse than some of these inappropriate comments is those who choose silence.)
Consider these quick suggestions:
Think first, then speak.
Acknowledge what you heard, without platitudes. “That really sucks.” “That must be scary.”
Express your feelings. “I am so sorry.” “This breaks my heart.” “I cannot imagine what you are going through.” “I don’t know what to say.” “I hope this all turns out well for you.”
Show your support. “You probably have a wonderful medical team, and lots of loving support, but please know that I'm here for you in whatever way you need.” (Of course, you will need to actually BE THERE if you make this promise.)
Listen to the person, without judgment, without correction, without instruction. Let them say what they feel, or what they fear.
It matter that we talk cancer.
But it also matters how we talk cancer.
(Oh, and Cancer Sucks!)