Words that are often used to describe cancer such as ‘battling’ or ‘survivor’ can divide opinion among people who’ve been diagnosed with it.
Some people find certain words motivating, while others find them upsetting. We asked some Vita readers which words they do and don’t like using.
People with cancer are frequently described as fighting a battle with their illness. Sometimes when someone dies as a result of cancer, they’re described as having lost their battle. Newspaper headlines often talk in these terms when describing a famous person diagnosed with cancer.
Ines believes that words like battling are best left to descriptions of war, not illness. ‘What does it mean if you lose the battle?’ she says. ‘Haven’t you been brave enough or fought hard enough?
‘Celebrities and newspapers seem especially keen on these words, as though individuals somehow have an ability or a strong character trait which can go above and beyond what the surgery chemotherapy radiotherapy and medicines do.
‘I think it’s human nature to want to have control over things like illness, but all these words just pile on the pressure for people with cancer. People telling you to “keep fighting” when you’re feeling weak or having a low day makes you feel as though you’re doing something wrong or even worse, being cowardly.’
Chris questions whether ‘battling’ is an accurate term for everyone’s experience of cancer. ‘My cousin died after “bravely battling cancer” for eight years. Actually, there were eight years between her initial diagnosis and her death, but for most of that time she was feeling well not having difficult treatment, and not fearing that her illness would have the outcome it did.’
People with cancer are sometimes described as being brave, whether it’s for going through treatment or coping with the emotional impact of a cancer diagnosis.
Susan objects to this term. ‘I don't like being described as brave,’ she says. ‘You simply do not have a realistic choice. I think you can make a choice to be positive about it, but it is not bravery.’
Eleanor, on the other hand, feels differently. ‘Folk often say I'm “brave” and sometimes that can be quite a boost,’ she says.
Tracey also likes the term. ‘I am happy to be called brave and strong as I feel this is an excellent description of anyone who has had cancer and tolerated the treatments.’
Vicky also doesn’t mind being called brave. ‘Brave I can cope with, though I never know how to respond (shrug of the shoulders and a muttered “thanks” usually happens!).’
People who live with and beyond cancer are often described as being survivors. It’s a very common term and is even used by some cancer charities, as well as people who’ve had cancer.
However, not everyone is so keen on the term.
Chris prefers not to describe herself as a survivor. ‘Cancer can return after many years and it seems that this term may be ignoring that fact. Also, the aim of getting back to health is to resume life as normal – as it would have been maybe enhanced by experiences – but labelling someone as a survivor is like looking back rather than forward.’
Eleanor also doesn’t like the term. ‘Since I have secondary breast cancer it's not appropriate,’ she says.
Tracey, on the other hand, isn’t bothered by the word. ‘I do not mind being classed as a cancer survivor,’ she says, ‘but do admit that I sometimes suffer from survivors’ guilt as a colleague at work died at age 47 and my next door neighbour at age 56.’
A term that was almost universally disliked by our readers is the word ‘victim’ to describe someone with cancer.
Tracey, for example, prefers to think of herself as simply being unlucky. ‘I felt very ill after the chemotherapy as it sent me into an early menopause,’ she says. ‘Along with the tamoxifen this made me feel dreadful. But I am not a victim of cancer, just unlucky that my body grew the cancer cells.’
What words do people like?
In contrast to the emotive language of ‘battles’ and ‘victims’, many of the readers we asked prefer to talk about their cancer using simple factual language.
‘I tend to prefer terms such as “living with cancer” and “recovering from cancer treatment”,’ says Vicky.
Susan says: ‘I simply say I have had treatment for breast cancer. The treatment is now finished. I really don't want to be labelled by an illness.’
Caroline also likes to keep things simple. ‘I much preferred to say factual things like “I am having treatment for cancer” or “I've been in remission for three years and it’s good to have passed that milestone”.’
Finally not everyone is keen on euphemisms. ‘I do get annoyed by people who won't say the word cancer’, says Eithne, ‘but instead call it "the big C".’
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Content last reviewed January 2016; next planned review 2018