The language of cancer


The Appalachian Online

Nora Smith, Reporter

When we speak about cancer, it’s a war. When patients are diagnosed, they are placed in a battle. They are fighting for their lives.

In many ways, the process of treating many forms of cancer is like a battle. Chemotherapy and radiation invade a body to destroy cells, both cancerous and not. Patients’ bodies are damaged because there is not a better way to heal. Until it is time for healing, for remission, for being cancer-free, it is a time for fighting.

When I was in eighth grade, my aunt was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. As she endured chemo, radiation and countless surgeries, my family and I called her a fighter. Her body fought tirelessly against the cancer cells, but three years after her initial diagnosis, she died. What began as breast cancer metastasized until her body could not fight it anymore.

Although we speak about cancer as a war, there are no peace treaties. When the dust settles on the battlefield, there are only survivors and victims. I struggled for over three years with the fact that, based on all the language I was exposed to about cancer, my aunt did not win her battle. People told me my aunt was a fighter, but for a long time all I could think was that she had “lost” her fight.

I loved and admired my aunt for more than her fight, for more than what her cancer did to her. I separated her from her body because who she was didn’t change with her diagnosis or even when breast cancer changed her physical form. No title can change the essence of anyone, whether that title is survivor, victim, or patient.

Now I know that even though my aunt was not a “survivor,” she lived with cancer. I admire people who have been diagnosed with cancer and continue to live, no matter how long they continue to live for. The problem with calling people who are in remission from cancer, or even those who are cancer-free, “survivors” is that cancer is not cured. Many forms of cancer are terminal and recurring, but it does not mean those diagnosed will not live a full life. It certainly does not mean that those with terminal forms of cancer do not fight or battle as hard as any survivor.

Survival is a beautiful thing, and cancer patients who continue living after their treatment ends should decide how they want to talk about their experience. However, every cancer journey is different, and patients who know they will not only have to live with cancer, but will die from cancer, should not be excluded from the narrative of the disease.

The most important thing to remember when reading, speaking and writing about cancer and cancer patients is that cancer is a classification of disease, not a disease on its own. There are over 100 kinds of cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. Each one affects patients’ bodies and experiences with cancer differently. Not every form of cancer is a war, although all bodies fight. Sometimes survival is not an option.

I urge anyone who writes about cancer to not only consider how they think we should speak about it, but to ask those diagnosed how they want to be spoken about. When we assign a metaphor to a disease, it defines people and their experiences, whether we intend that or not. We need to humanize the way we speak and think about cancer, because the experience of cancer may not always be a war or a battle, but it is always about the patients and those directly affected.

Story by: Nora Smith, Editor-in-Chief