How to talk about cancer

Dame Laura Lee Dame Laura Lee
Thursday 29 April 2021
  • Dame Laura Lee

At Maggie's we are careful with the language we use. We don't want people to feel that cancer defines you as a person, so we talk about the people who come into our centres simply as 'people’ or ‘visitors', rather than cancer patients. We also avoid using words like 'terminal' and 'prognosis', which our research has told us are among those least liked by the people who visit our centres.

X lost his battle with cancer. He fought hard, but in the end he wasn't strong enough.

Brave Y has beaten cancer twice.

If you have had any experience of cancer you'll probably recognise these ways of speaking. People with cancer are often encouraged to be heroic, to fight. If you survive you have 'beaten' cancer; if you die you have 'lost your battle' - however bravely you are said to have fought.

Cancer now comes with a language of its own, a lexicon of words and phrases that can seem to come to mind automatically, so often have we heard them. When people talk about cancer in this way, they usually mean well. After all, it may be inspiring for someone with cancer to be told they are brave, to be rallied by friends and loved ones urging them not to give up, to fight on with all they have. But while some people with cancer may feel they gain strength by thinking of it as a fight, for others the opposite is true.

The BBC journalist Nick Robinson, who completed treatment for lung cancer in 2016, put this poetically in a tribute to his friend and fellow journalist Steve Hewlett, who died of cancer in February 2017. This is what he wrote (full version here):

“You 'fought' they said. You've been so 'brave' they said

Yet you know, I know, anyone who has faced it knows differently

Cancer is not a battle.

There is no choice whether to fight let alone whether to win or lose.

No amount of courage no measure of cowardice can decide the outcome.

There is no virtue in survival. Certainly no lack of it in death”.

What Nick Robinson brilliantly highlights here is the fact that this kind of language puts the onus on the person with cancer, while in reality they often have little control over what's happening to them and can feel powerless or even guilty as a result.

The author Sophie Sabbage, whose book, The Cancer Whisperer, is subtitled 'Finding Courage, Direction and the Unlikely Gifts of Cancer', has this to say: 'So many people told me to "stay positive" when I was staring death in the eye that I wanted to scream. I think we need to be very real and authentic. This means facing our fears, expressing our grief and overcoming the forces of denial.'

Negative words can also be hurtful. Some newspapers still refer to 'cancer victims', a phrase that comes across as thoughtless and demeaning.

Yes, cancer can be a difficult subject, but if we listen as well as talk, we can have the kind of meaningful conversation that someone with cancer really needs.

We conducted a 'Power of Words Workshop' in our West London Centre in June 2017. People living with cancer were asked which of the words they hear time and time again carried strong negative associations for them; these included:

  • Battle
  • Terminal
  • Heroic
  • Victim
  • Big C
  • My friend had it....
  • Think positive
  • Brave
  • Incurable
  • You'll be fine

Adapted from an original blog post written by Dame Laura Lee in 2017 for the Huffington Post.