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.