The Language of Cancer
you’re sitting in a doctor’s examination room. You’ve been tired lately, have a cough you can’t shake. The other night you woke up, sheets soaked in sweat. It terrified you, so now you’re here. It’s cold, and an older man just saw you at your most vulnerable—shivering in a hospital gown. A piece of tissue paper just big enough to make things awkward.
The doctor knocks, an illusion of dignity. As soon as you see his face you know that there’s something bad on that little clipboard. Something really bad. But he doesn’t say that. Instead, he says, "We’re going to need to run some more tests," and it’s several sleepless days before he drops the bomb:
"We found a tumor."
Your world explodes. That jigsaw puzzle of a life, the one that you’d been slowly placing piece after piece into, the one that was beginning to show hints of a big, beautiful picture? It’s been slammed up in the air, and now it’s falling in disarray. Scattered. And, when the haze clears, there’s a brand new relationship in your life. You and your cancer.
Our language has not yet assimilated this disease. You might tell someone that you "have cancer," implying possession, like cancer is something you bought at the store. It makes more sense the other way around. A tumor has Sandy’s liver. Appropriate: If cancer kills you, it’s because cancer took too much. You could name your tumor, talk about it like it’s independent, capable of moods and thoughts. Don’t give an ex-lover or an evil boss the honor—maybe a first crush. "Can’t get out of bed today, Patrick is acting up." Or go classic. "Surgery again next week. They want to take another look at Mr. Chillingworth." Or just think of your cancer as a parasite, like the worms your dog gets a pill for. The truth—that the cancer is something your body created, something you might be partially responsible for—is too ugly to vocalize.
But you’ve made up your mind. Cancer will not kill you. You’re going to fight. Steel yourself for a war. You will resist; it’ll be a struggle. You won’t be a victim. Cancer will attack, but you’ll persevere and overcome. But what does a victory mean? Best-case scenario, you still have a date each year with a doctor and a machine to make sure cancer didn’t return to the battlefield without telling you. A conflict with cancer is one-sided because you can never really win. You won’t be a conqueror, just a survivor. A loss, on the other hand, is absolute.
So, scratch violent confrontational language. But what alternative exists? As with anything negative, we separate out the cancer from the person. She’s a red-headed girl, or he’s a tall boy, but it’s a faux pas to say a disabled man. Instead, they’re a person with a disability. Likewise, no one is a "cancerous person." They might be a "cancer patient," which focuses on the curative process, but you if use the word "person" it’s a "person with cancer." Generic and bland. A picture of you and cancer walking down a street.
So while you wait for language to catch up, cherry-pick the best from all the cancer euphemisms. Don’t be a soldier in an unwinnable war. Don’t think of your body as playing involuntary host to this malignant house guest. Do be one of the over eleven million Americans who is living with cancer. After all, life itself is full of fear and uncertainty. Living has its bad days and its good, its danger and its triumphs. Cancer will just be another part of that. So, when you’re in that doctor’s office, scared and trembling, ask to be called a future survivor of cancer. Abbreviate it, append it to the end of business cards. John Doe, FSoC.
Graham Oliver was raised in Kentucky and now lives in Austin—distant worlds bound inextricably by sweet tea.
"Growing up, we lived in a lot of houses and sat on a lot of different front porches. One that stands out was massive and concrete, with the prerequisite swing and wicker furniture. It was high enough off the ground that jumping from it was a risk, a rush. Behind that same house, I used the back porch for a sneaked cigarette and phone calls away from prying ears. But that front porch, it was for conversations and books and holding hands with a girl and waving to neighbors. Nowadays, I don’t have a front porch at home, so I borrow others: a friend’s, a coffee shop’s, the balcony at work. Come by and say hello."