Talking About Cancer

When you’re dealing with something that no-one really wants to talk about, it’s hard to find the words to explain things. After I got my diagnosis, getting round to telling people I had cancer was probably harder than actually processing the news. Chris and I had to split the list of people we wanted to tell first hand, because it got exhausting so quickly. While you can argue that telling people and processing are part and parcel of the same package, there’s only really one way you can say “I’ve got breast cancer” and no matter how many times you say it, it never really gets any easier. You can anticipate the reactions you’re facing – whether you’re speaking to a loved one, a colleague, a neighbour or an old friend, you know that the news is going to impact them, one way or another.

Eventually, I stopped dawdling around the topic, just ripped off the band aid (often apologising for bearing the news later) and spat it out. There’s no easy way to say it. I’ll see the face of the person I said it out loud to the first time for the rest of my life . But it’s from there that the first hand experience of talking about cancer begins.

A really interesting email from Cancer Research dropped into my inbox last week, detailing a study which has been carried out by Professor Elena Semino, a linguist from Lancaster University looking at the ways people talk about going through cancer treatment. The research, which studied 1.5 million words showed that the most used metaphors for talking about cancer are “violence metaphors” – i.e “battle” “fight” “war”, and “journey” metaphors. Semino went on to explain that often, patients feel disempowered by these kind of terms because they feel “they aren’t given the right “weapons” to fight or that the doctors are “the generals” and they’re just common “foot soldiers” in the fight against cancer.

The article added that while calling cancer a “journey” doesn’t create the opportunities for failure,  it’s not necessarily better. It can provide comfort to think of others on the journey with you,  but  “for some other people, there is this idea of a reluctant journey. One person says ‘how the hell am I supposed to navigate this road I don’t even want to be on.’”

Ultimately, Semino’s research showed that everyone is different – from patients, to families and the wider public – everyone needs to choose their own metaphor for dealing with cancer.

So what’s my metaphor? It’s taken me a while to come up with one to be honest, and that’s what I’m supposed to be good at. While “The Nonsense” is a pretty fitting title for the cancer itself, how would I describe the experience I’m having? I am strongly opposed to being described as a person who is “suffering from cancer”. The cancer itself hasn’t really given me any grief. I didn’t let it. And it didn’t have the chance. We got that bad boy outta there before it knew what had hit it. So I’m not suffering it. Am I “battling” it? I suppose so, but I agree that that suggests there’s a fight to be lost, and I’m not even entertaining that idea. Am I on a “journey”? Well journey suggests something quite pleasant doesn’t it? Like the round the world trip I’ve spent most of my life dreaming about. And while there are some pleasant bits, dealing with this isn’t exactly a life affirming journey to South America. Should I call it a “trip”, because it sounds shorter and involves more drugs? None of these feel right to me. I know that I need my own metaphor.

I read something (and I can’t for the life of me find it anywhere now, so mega sorry if it was your blog, and let me know if it was) that suggested that having cancer was a bit like seeing someone you’d rather avoid at a party. As far as you’re concerned, you just want them gone. They’re there, and there’s nothing really you can do about it, so you just have to co-exist together until the end of the party. I vividly remember the line “you eye each other furtively across the room” but you never interact. Then, when the party’s over you’ll go your separate ways. I’ve heard having cancer being referred to as having an unwanted house guest, but even prefixed with “unwelcome” or “unwanted”, “guest” makes it seem like they’re a bit welcome, or they might have been once. So After a bit of discussion, I settled on squatter. To me, “The Nonsense” is a squatter in this part of my life. Unwelcome, unwanted and soon to be evicted. Eventually set to be no’but a distant memory. Smell ya later, you poisonous cells. I don’t want you here, I’m just waiting for the deeds to make sure me kicking you out is official.

When it’s gone and treatment is over, will I call myself a “survivor” Destiny’s Child style? Or will I just say I’m another statistic, yet more proof that cancer’s days are numbered. Perhaps I’ll tell people (if it comes up in conversation, it’s not going to be my icebreaker of choice or anything, obvs) that I kicked cancer in the goolies. Maybe I’ll simply be a person who had cancer. And doesn’t any more. And who’s hoping it’ll stay that way.

I’d love to hear the metaphors you use when you’re talking about cancer – please do let me know in the comments below.

One thought on “Talking About Cancer

  1. Jayne Little says:

    In the NHS we have the “cancer pathway” from assessment (often 2 week wait ie may be cancer) through diagnosis to treatment and rehabilitation – similar to journey but perhaps a bit more clinical. At any given time we know where a patient is on the pathway and sometimes the route will change over time. You focus on the end of that pathway Alice, when you get to rehabilitation and can put it all behind you. Chemo is the next part of that pathway for you, thank goodness. Stay strong! Thinking of you. Jayne x

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