The Language of Cancer

//The Language of Cancer

I just saw that Dana Jennings, who writes a blog about his prostate cancer for the NYT, is discussing language and cancer.  So I recycled this essay I wrote some time back.

It amazes me that doctors still use the word biochemical failure to refer to a recurrence of prostate cancer.  A doctor told me, “It’s a shame this word escaped from the lab”.  I know that when we got hubby’s  post-surgery positive PSA  I was depressed because the word “failure” kept on going round and round in my mind. We got an “F” in prostate cancer.

“Recurrence” on the other hand, is almost good word. It sounds like an old friend has come back to stay with you.  (OK, it’s a stretch.) 

And may I ask, what do they call death if recurrence is “biochemical failure”?   “Biochemical catastrophe,” maybe? “Biological Armaggedon”?

My husband’s surgery failed, and so he had to have “salvage radiation“.  This term is a favorite.  Sounds like they gave him rad in the junkyard?

Seriously, the language of cancer is something we need to talk about

Language affects the way we cope with disease.   A writer named Susan  Sontag, who struggled with cancer for years, wrote a book called “Illness as a metaphor”  which describes how cancer has been demonized, in part because of the language associated with it.

Wouldn’t you feel better if you had a neoplasm”?  That’s the scientific word for “new growth”, which is what you have.  I can just see the buds, little sprouts.  And we don’t need to worry about dumping “cancer” because it has no scientific meaning.  Cancer means “crab”, because some Greek thought it resembled one.

Other diseases have undergone verbal makeovers.  “Leprosy” is now “Hansen’s Disease“.  And “senility” has become “Alzheimer’s.”  I think these changes have helped, but they’re are a mouthful.   

 “Malignant” gets to me the most.  Something evil resides in my body.  Call the exorcist.

We know that there are plenty of diseases out that are much worse than cancer .  Just ask my brother-in-law who is dying of ALS (Lou Gherig’s disease).  Ebola virus, anybody?  Never mind, “cancer” still terrorizes The word is radioactive.  Period.

That’s because all sorts of terrible things have come to be associated with cancer. But this is something we can change.  For example, in general parlance we refer to something evil or noxious as a “cancer” that needs to be excised. Can anybody think of a better word?

The words we use to describe cancer make us feel bad about ourselves .   We take cancer very personally. This doesn’t happen with other diseases, except maybe AIDS.

There are a lot of people with prostate cancer who think of their illness as a “beast” to be slain.   But his metaphor doesn’t work for everybody.

My father had a stroke, and nobody called it a “beast” or developed any personal relationship with it. It was just something unfortunate that happened which had to be overcome. It wasn’t malignant.I don’t think heart disease is taken personally either.  Good examples for comparison with cancer are arthritis and lupus.   These diseases result from your own immune system attacking you. The job of the immune system is to protect you!  But you don’t hear people saying, “That double-crossing Arthritis Beast!”

I hope what I’m saying will make you have more compassion for yourself and find some relief.  It’s hard to exist in a perpetual state of war.  What really struck me about the language of cancer was reading a long article about how tumors use every trick of evolution to outwit us, “Cancer as an Evolutionary and Ecological Process“, (Lauren, et al., avail. on Medscape). But it also described cancer as a “neoplasm”, not a “beast”, and I saw the cancer for what it is: a pathetic bunch of damaged cells that are just trying to do what we all want to do, our biological imperative, which is to survive.  Unfortunately, the only thing around for the cancer eat is us.

The article described the relationship between the “host” and the cancer alternatively as “parasitic” and “mutual association”.  I’ll take “mutual association”.

But we have the last laugh: If the cancer kills us, it kills itself, too. And leaves no fond memories.  Compare our lives with the lives of cancer cells which are just mindlessly reproducing, (asexually) while we are having fun.

I must tell you, and I know a lot of people won’t like it, that after reading the article I referenced, I could no longer view cancer as a “Beast”. It seems ridiculous to be waging war with a bunch of cells.   In reality, the cancer is not evil, it’s neutral, and it has no control at all over its life.

For example, in the ordinary course of things, a normal cell may turn itself into either a stem cell or a sperm cell.  But it’s not a choice between good and evil, it’s molecular biology. If you want to blame somebody for your cancer, try your ancestors.  Or carcinogens in the environment.  Or the government for tolerating  pollution.  Or vent  at the medical professionals.  But this mindless bunch of damaged cells who are just following the rules of evolutionary biology —  it’s hard to even consider them evil.

Anyway, my attitude has changed. I no longer regard cancer as the enemy. And that makes me feel a a lot better.  It’s more like fate has brought the two of us together for better or for worse. And, although, we have made progress in getting rid of our unwanted “guests” we still have a long way to goat it.

By | 2017-10-19T10:54:07+00:00 March 17th, 2010|Postings|2 Comments

About the Author:

2 Comments

  1. Jet Black April 5, 2011 at 6:58 pm

    Hi Leah

    I just had to respond to your extremely thoughtful and thought-provoking article. Thank you so much for verbalising what I’ve been thinking… and taking it even further.

    I don’t like or use violence in my daily life, whether verbally or in action. I even avoid watching news programmes about war, etc. Or when people behave badly, for example, ex-employers, friends or lovers who’ve psychologically/emotionally stabbed me in the back. (Yes, that is how it felt). I can’t exactly wish them well, but I don’t think evil, violent thoughts, behaviour or language helps to resolve or move on from the situation. I generally try to understand, use my anger to fuel something positive, or at least not harmful, e.g. hitting cushions or chopping wood.

    In terms of cancer, I have multiple myeloma, which is deemed “incurable” (more about that word later). So far, I have not gone down the “fighting” route in my language. I find myself, almost without trying using the word “treating” the cancer, which when I think about it makes me smile with the double meaning of employing treatment, but also doing something nice, like a treat. I wonder if the cancer experiences it like that?

    I also find I use the word “condition” when I think and talk about my cancer. I don’t think I’m in denial and it certainly makes it easier for other people, because of everything you’ve said about it being so demonised.

    I’m not about to die suddenly, but have been told it’s “incurable” – another bit of language I don’t like. I mean life itself is incurable, so although myeloma is life-shortening (I’ve been told I could expect 10-15 years), so is walking under a bus and having cancer doesn’t stop you from doing just that, so while I have this condition, I do also make sure to look both ways when crossing the street.

    Again, thank you for your words! Would it be okay to quote you or link to your blog from mine? Mine is jetblackliving.wordpress.com, if you’re interested.

    Jet

  2. HIFU prostate cancer October 13, 2011 at 8:53 pm

    It was something of great excitement getting to your site yesterday. I got here today hoping to uncover something new. I was not disappointed. Your ideas with new techniques on this thing were enlightening and an excellent help to me. Thank you for leaving out time to write down these things as well as for sharing your thinking.

Leave A Comment