I have been thinking about the words and phrases used to describe cancer and a lot of it is very aggressive. Including the word ‘aggressive’. Here are some other words: fighting, brave, survivor, battle, win, remission, beat, victim, invasive, coping.

Don’t get me wrong, I am no fan of cancer and I’m not trying to stick up for it, but I really believe that the way I, and you, think about this, is going to make a big difference to my getting better quicker.

The slightly twee ‘little c’ and ‘unwelcome guest’ language as well as the about page where my condition does not dominate are my attempts to challenge the traditional mindset. Here are some other repositioning exercises (I’d welcome contributions from you too):

“I’m going to get through this” instead of “I’m going to fight/beat this”

“I’m a cancer-dodger” instead of “I’m a cancer survivor”

“I’m better now” or “I’m cured” instead of “I’m in remission”

This last point brings to mind a talk I saw by Ellen Langer, a doctor who I saw speak at last year’s Happiness and its Causes conference.  As well as conducting  a fascinating experiment on a bunch of 80 year old men, she also published a study which asked breast-cancer survivors whether they considered themselves in remission or cured. The “cured” group reported better general health, more energy, less pain and less depression. Langer concludes “[T]he extremely significant results of this study warrant further research and a possible rethinking of how to instruct breast cancer survivors to envision their relationship with the illness.”

I accidentally came across some research that supports this whilst searching for ‘regret breast reconstruction.’

A tendency to use coping strategies characterized by helpless/hopelessness and anxious preoccupation, rather than fighting spirit, were highly predictive of distress.

On a related note, my lovely friend and colleague Jayne has offered some practical advice for those who are feeling helpless in the face of my situation. She says “It’s not easy for people to banish fear and anxiety without replacing it with something more constructive. They get sucked into the drama and don’t know how to get out of it, and of course, it’s quite contagious (like all dramas are).”

Here’s her ingenious solution:

You might like to try telling those people (all of us actually) that there IS something they can do: ‘Spend a few minutes a day seeing me strong and seeing me healing and recovering easily and quickly. If you could do that every time you think of me, that would be great. There might be some other stuff you can help with down the track too and I will ask, but right now, helping me stay positive is really important and I’d be really grateful.’

Marvellous advice!

It’s about staying in control as much as possible in the face of lots of uncertainty. I can best sum it up like this:  while I have cancer, it doesn’t have me. No siree. Not by a long, long chalk.

5 Comments on Language matters

  1. What an inspiring post, Sam. Thank you. I love your friend’s advice for those who are feeling helpless – it’s also great life advice for staying out of the murkiness of drama in EVERY situation. I know from my own experience with having a number of miscarriages at different stages and then all the ups and downs of the adoption process sometimes some people in my life were quite into the drama. Not people who are really close to me, but those more peripheral. Some people surprised me by wanting to paint me as a victim and I just never saw myself that way. So I’m very inspired and I love the daily practice of seeing you healing and recovering quickly and easily!
    I really enjoyed the poem you posted too, and I thought you might like a poem on the website of one of my all time favourite poets – Jo Shapcott. It’s the title poem of her latest collection (which won the Costa prize in the UK) and it’s on the front page: http://joshapcott.com/
    It’s a really beautiful, positive collection, full of life and energy and humour. And she is most definitely better now. Cured.
    Lisa B

    • Hi Lisa, Thank you for sharing that, I am finding so many sources of inspiration! And here’s to staying out of the murkiness of drama. There are so many better things to do!

  2. Hi Sam. I completely agree with you on how aggressive the language around cancer tends to be, particularly in the media. To the point where I find it hard to hear the word ‘cancer’ and not have some kind of fear response. So I am wholeheartedly in favour of revolutionising the language associated with cancer! While pondering your situation again this morning, I realised this:

    I believe that some people create an environment within their bodies that gives cancer a fabulous opportunity to materialise and then thrive. Too much sun, too many poor food choices, too many cigarettes, too much alcohol, too much stress, not enough exercise..the list goes on.

    Then there is you. While genetically, you may have been pre-disposed, that’s not what’s important. What is important is that you have created an environment in your home and in your body that is ripe for HEALING. Having spent some time in your home a few months ago, I got such a feel for the life you live, and it is nothing short of wholesome, inspiring and beautiful. I can’t help but wonder whether the choices you’ve made over the years in terms of partner, where you live, the food you eat, the yoga you practice and so on are the reason your cancer scored a measly 0 out of 3. If your cancer was on a reality TV show (Cancer’s Got Talent? The C Factor?), Kyle Sandilands would have laughed it off the stage before it even opened its mouth to sing – arguably because you and your body refused to let it develop. Had you made different choices, less authentic and more harmful choices over the years, perhaps you would now be facing an unwelcome guest that had taken over more than just the spare room.

    Of course there are rarely any definitive answers to questions or musings such as these – I hope you will forgive me for rambling a little. But I just want to finish by saying that when you asked us to picture you strong and healing well, I realised that is the only picture I’ve had of you in my mind – ever. When I think of you pre, during and post cancer it’s always the same image – a beautiful woman with luminous skin, sparkling eyes, a radiant smile, and a brilliantly wicked sense of humour. I can’t picture you any other way. With love, Fel xxx

  3. Hey there Sambo, so pleased to learn that my thoughts impacted you so, and I’m thrilled there’ll be others joining me in seeing you strong, as always.

    @Fel, your comments are delightful, but how about one of those old fashioned talent quests and we can all get together and give the little c the gong?

    Jayne xxx

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