I have always struggled with the language of cancer – other people’s language that is. All that fighting, battling, struggling….Here Simon Jenkins hits the nail on the head and encourages us to be less gloomy. So many cancers are curable these days, even my heinous and invasive soft tissue sarcoma (come on let’s give it its real name, not just ‘cancer’), which seems to have gone quiet …fingers crossed! I’m sure its down to my diet, exercise and as Simon says, my attitude. See my previous post on optimism and taking control.
Do you have a cancer? Or are you “a brave hero fighting against the demon foe”? Have you something in your body that needs removing, or are you a heroic victim in a war you may “win or lose”? A poll by Macmillan Cancer Support has found that many people with cancer are fed up with the language of war. They want to be treated like anyone else who is ill. They want to discuss their treatment with a doctor. It is as simple as that.
Anyone with experience of a cancer knows well the lugubrious looks you get. You poor thing. We are so sorry. How long have “they” given you? Be brave. Be positive. Fight back. Don’t give in and “lose”. It suggests you lacked courage and were “beaten”.
Language always matters. It matters not because it affects physical wellbeing – a subject on which psychotherapists differ – but because it affects how people live with their illness and relate to those around them. The taboo that surrounds cancer is still intense. Until the middle of the last century, its apparent incurability made it the great unmentionable. That taboo still turns initial diagnosis, even of the commonest and most curable cancers such as breast, bowel, lung and prostate, into a devastating blow that can be treated as a premonition of death by family and friends.
Having some time ago been through this myself, I am sure a way to de-escalate the language of cancer is to stop referring to it like bubonic plague. Rather use the indefinite article, as “a” cancer, a specific thing, an intrusion, a growth. There are certainly blood, bone and cell cancers that are, or have become, “blanket”. But most are malignant growths to be removed or destroyed in situ, the quicker the better. If they have not spread, they are gone. It does not leave people “in remission”, with the veil of death still hovering over them.
The image of cancer as an invading army, an immortal alien no human body can resist, derives in part from the failure of medical research to find a “cure”. There has been a suspicion that the pharmaceutical industry likes this image of being engaged in a cold, or hot, war as it helps fundraising, not least from government – and that this lay behind big pharma’s resistance to immunotherapy research, now at last ending.
A sensible approach to cancers (plural) should owe less to the language of the Pentagon and more to a local GP surgery. It would comfort thousands of ordinary mortals, who want to handle this illness like any other. In most cases, this means: “Have you a cancer? I am so sorry, when are they taking it out?”