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 my 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.) 

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

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

Seriously, the language of cancer is a major issue that we need to talk about

Llanguage affects the way a patient we cope with the 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 we feel better if we got rid of “cancer” and used neoplasm”  (scientific word for “new growth”..  Feels heavenly.  We don’t need to worry about getting rid of “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” ha become “Alzheimer’s.”  I think these changes have helped but they really are a mouthful.   

 “Malignant” is the worst. It implies that something evil resides within our body.  And we are responsible for it.

 There are plenty of diseases that are much worse than cancer .  Just ask my brother-in-law who is dying of ALS.  Never mind, cancer terrorizes more than anything else.  It’s nuclear.

Why? Maybe because all sorts of terrible things have come to be associated with cancer. And this is something that can be changed.  For example, In general parlance we refer to something evil or noxious as a “cancer” that needs to be excised. Cancer is the bogeyman.  It’s not surprising that we dread it. 

I believe the terms we use to describe cancer makes 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 life-threatening that had to be overcome. I don’t think heart disease is taken personally.  Good esxamples 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 people have more compassion for themselves and maybe find 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”.  Now doesn’t “mutual association” sound better?

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 it’s 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.  The government, maybe, for tolerang  pollution. Or you can 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, since I have read this article, my attitude toward cancer 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 destroying our unwanted “companions”, we still have a long way to go before we can rid ourselves of these “guests”.  But we have no choice but to keep at it.

By | 2017-10-19T10:57:36+00:00 June 11th, 2008|Op-Ed/Inside Scoop|1 Comment

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One Comment

  1. Carla Ulbrich June 12, 2008 at 5:15 pm

    i have to agree that language can be very hurtful when talking abou disease.
    i’d like to point out though, that it *does* happen to folks with other diseases, probably most diseases.
    i don’t appreciate how for some reason comedians think the word “lupus” makes a hilarious punchline. i’ve lost count how many times i’ve heard lupus used in standup comedy.
    and then there’s the TV show House, MD, where they insist that “it’s never lupus,” further reinforcing the myth that ew’re all a bunch of hyponchondriacs and our pain is not real.

    and if you hang around people who live with lupus, you will definitely hear them saying things like why is my immune system turning against me?

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