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Nine Cancer Language Traps

Words matter. A lot. Cancer words matter too, and it seems to me, cancer language needs an overhaul. The way we describe certain aspects of a cancer experience is simply out of date and worn out.

Even when I was a newbie going through chemo, I found certain ideas, words and/or phrases highly annoying. I still do.

So, I decided to put together a list of what I see as a few of the top cancer language traps. Let me know what you think in the comments. Granted, it was hard to narrow it down.

And by the way, airing one’s cancer language gripes opinions is not being negative. In fact, I think quite the opposite is true.

Doing so is helpful because how else will cancer language ever evolve and change for the better?

Also, just for the record, I never intend to make anyone feel badly for falling into any of these (or any other) cancer language traps, and I fully realize many people don’t even consider them traps.

This is not meant to be a finger pointing sort of post. Heck, I still fall into the cancer language traps, too. Society has made these kinds of ‘catch alls’ so easy and so accessible.

Perhaps we’ve gotten a bit lazy about words we use – and not just regarding cancer.

Each trap is filled with trite phrases that have been ingrained into our brains for so long, we often just go to them without really thinking about it. Ideas, words and phrases that we use (even cancer ones) can become rote-like too.

I say, we can do better.

I say, it is time for a cancer language overhaul, because words always matter.

Before we can do the overhaul, we need to figure out which traps or generalizations are most troubling for a lot of us and then hopefully come up with some alternatives.

The things on this list aren’t specific things people say, rather they are a kind of mind set or a type of thinking that is out there. They represent a sort of accepted way of looking at or talking about cancer; or as I call them, cancer language traps.

Each trap has dozens (probably more) of specific examples of things people say. This post and this list is not about those specifics, though I threw in a couple of examples. Nor does this list come close to covering all the traps. But…

For starters, I’m going with these nine cancer language traps which maybe should/could be avoided at least some of the time. Of course, they are all related too.

1. Calling cancer a gift or a blessing (ex. cancer’s the best thing that ever happened to me)

2. Above all else, just stay positive (ex. you can beat this if you just try hard).

3. War metaphor words and phrases, and there are a lot of them (ex. fight, warrior, win/lose, battle talk, victorious, surrender and so on).

4. When someone dies, saying so and so lost her courageous battle with cancer is soooo cliche. This one is in a ‘war class’ all its own IMO. Journalists almost always resort to this one when a celebrity or someone famous dies. This would be a great place to start the overhaul. Very doable!

You might want to read, Stating a Person Lost Her/His Battle with Cancer Is Insulting!

5. Cancer transforms you into a new and improved version of your former self – you become enlightened (ex. cancer taught me so much).

6. Cancer makes you strong, courageous, brave, tough, heroic and so on… (tied up with #3 and #4 too of course).

7. New normal talk (what does new normal even mean?)

8. Referring to cancer as a journey – there’s gotta be a better word

9. Any kind of ‘free boob job’ reference for obvious (I hope) reasons.

Maybe I’ll do a followup post or two on cancer language later, as there’s so much to say about each of the above. I’m sure I forgot some important traps, so let me know what you think is missing from this list. I want to know what you think.

Perhaps you don’t care about cancer language, much less cancer language traps.

But wouldn’t it be a good idea for us all to at least think a little more about things we say before resorting to the old, worn-out cancer cliches so often?

I say yes.

What about you?

What’s on your cancer language trap list?

Does cancer language matter to you, why or why not?

Remember to sign up for news from Nancy’s Point here!

Nine Cancer Language Traps #cancer #cancersucks #battletalk #warmetaphors
Words Matter.

75 thoughts to “Nine Cancer Language Traps”

  1. There are so many of those that I hate! The one I fall into is that I call cancer the ‘gift that keeps on giving’ with more and more medical appointments and ailments that follow it. And yes I completely consider the term survivor to be part of the war trap and refuse to use it.

    1. Caroline, Interesting that you feel survivor falls into the war trap. I hadn’t really thought about it like that. I don’t care much for the survivor label either, but I do use it sometimes because I have yet to come up with an alternative. There are alternatives, though for many of these words and phrases we use. Time to start avoiding the traps at least once in while IMO. Thanks for reading and sharing.

  2. You definitely need to add survivor to your list. When the longest remission you’ve had was 15 months and you are on recurrence number 2, and treatment will never end, does survivor really apply? I do like metavivor, but outside of “cancerland,” no one understands it.
    As for journey, cancer in itself is not a journey. Use of journey (and also road or path) as a metaphor for one’s life is very old and widespread throughout both religious and secular literature. So I can see cancer as a valley, detour, mountain, or something like that on the journey of life. But not cancer itself as the journey.
    I’m sure you know the 23rd Psalm. It took on a whole new meaning for me after cancer. For me, I found my metaphor for cancer in the “valley of the SHADOW of death.” So that is how I think of cancer, it is a dark creepy shadow that has no power over who I really am. It is just a shadow in a very difficult valley, not death itself. That shadow, cancer, has no power to take me until God says it is time for me to sit at His table.
    I’ve slipped into the war metaphors sometimes because they are so common and other people relate to them, but I don’t like them either. Maybe no one else understands or even likes it, but I am comfortable with cancer as a shadow in a valley.

    1. Elizabeth, Cancer is a dark creep shadow for sure. That does fit. I am not comfortable with the survivor label either and I have written about it before, but I admit I haven’t come up with an alternative word that people relate to. Like Caroline mentioned, maybe it does belong with the war metaphors, but I’m not sure about that. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  3. I would like a reprint of this to send to the local funeral homes. I have told my family that I want NO reference to having been through a battle. You have few choices to make during your treatment. You do it because it is what you need to do. That, to me, is the opposite of courage.

    1. Judy, You have permission to print this off as long as you give credit to the author – me. I never even thought about sending this to funeral homes. That is a brilliant idea! They could play an integral role in cancer language overhaul efforts. Thank you for your comment.

    2. For real Judy. Also, please don’t call it “my” cancer. This might have been my experience with cancer, but I refuse to own the disease. These language tips are spot on. I am a survivor and so are you if you are reading this.

  4. Aarrgghh! I blame Oprah for the spread of JOURNEY. I hate it. Cancer is not a journey – it’s a disease. I’m not on a journey, I’m sick and getting treatment for the disease. Words do matter. Sorry for the pressure, Nancy, but don’t give up on the quest to find a more accurate word for survivor. Thank you!

    1. Linda, I don’t like the journey analogy either. I do like Elizabeth’s comment where she said life is the journey. Cancer is a major detour, drop off, pit fall, shadow, storm, or whatever you choose to call it. Survivor is another loaded one, but I have not come up with anything a whole lot better. But I won’t give up! Thank you for reading.

  5. Hi Nancy,

    All of these cancer phrases/words get to me, too. In particular, I’m so tired of the battle language. People who die from cancer didn’t lose. No way. They fought as hard as the people who happened to live. I also hate the heroic language that accompanies “survivors” like me. I’m no hero.

    I hate the word “survivor,” but I don’t know what can replace it. I don’t consider myself a survivor in some ways. I do use the word to help others understand, but it’s really not a good word in my view. I hate cancer journey, but I’ve used “breast cancer experience,” which I don’t like either.

    And I hate the boobies, ta-tas, etc. language — anything that sexualizes breast cancer, really.

    Terrific post, Nancy — one that should get those who aren’t thinking about cancer language to think a bit more about the words they choose.

    1. Beth, Yeah… I’m with you… I believe we can do so much better. Sometimes I do feel as if I am butting my head up against a brick wall. But still, I’ll keep at it hoping some are listening and at least thinking about using alternatives. Thanks for reading and sharing, Beth.

  6. Excellent. But to your point about it not being a finger pointing post, I am starting to wonder if “falling into the trap” of using this language is even what is going on. Indeed, there are many folks who outright embrace much of the language, rather than fall into a trap–especially the winning/kicked cancer’s ass stuff–they make an informed (maybe) choice to use the language. While I loathe it, I am beginning to re-think my outrage at the media for those “lost the battle” cliche headlines. Maybe will post about it soon, if I get time.

    1. CC, You’re exactly right. There are some folks who do embrace much of this kind of type of cancer language and that is their right of course. But as for me and quite a few others it seems, an overhaul is needed. I’m just looking for a bit more thought going into word choices. And it seems to me, journalists (and as Judy mentioned, funeral directors) can lead the way just by stopping the ‘so and so lost her courageous battle to cancer’ kind of rote messaging. Makes me cringe. That one little change would be huge in my book. Thank you for reading and adding to this discussion. Look forward to that post.

  7. I agree with all the terms on your list. I’m not crazy about survivor either but it is better than patient (when treatment is over), victim, or the dreaded thrived. If I am thriving it is in spite of cancer, not because of it.

    I just wrote a post about finding my new normal and not having a clue what it is. There is nothing normal about the cancer experience or its after effects.

    This was an excellent post that shows it is time to come up with a new vocabulary for cancer. It is time to think outside the box instead of relying on these tired and sometimes offensive words.

    1. Sharon, At least we are talking about this more and more, and talking is always good. And I don’t much care for the ‘new normal’ phrase either. Thank you for reading. Just read your post. Nice job.

  8. Nancy, this is so weird, but I’m in the middle of my own cancer language post. Like minds! The phrase that I loathe so much it makes my skin crawl is the “new normal.” Yuck! It’s not normal and to say it’s the “new normal” is to say nothing will ever change or get better, like this is how it is. It’s also sugar-coating and I hate when people bullshit cancer patients/survivors/whatever we are into thinking that everything’s fine, just a new kind of fine, when it’s not. … Wow, that felt good. 🙂

    1. Eileen, That happens pretty often doesn’t it? Yes, like minds indeed! There is a lot of sugar-coating that goes on in Cancerland. I realize many survivors do embrace, even use, much of the terminology that annoys many of us, which is their right of course and I respect that. I don’t care much for ‘new normal’ either, but the two that drive me nuts are the ‘cancer is a gift’ one and the ‘so and so died after a courageous battle’. Those two literally make me cringe inside when I hear them. Thank you for sharing. I look forward to your post.

  9. Well done, again, Nancy. In agreement with all of your smart, awesome readers here. Cancer “veteran” rings truer to me than “survivor”… but since I also loathe the war motif, I call all of us members of The World’s Shittiest Sorority.

    I was nodding, nodding, nodding in agreement reading Sharon’s New Normal post and feel like I’m educating people all of the time how WEIRD the “new normal” can be.

    Love to all of you gorgeous people. xoxo

  10. Oh Nancy…excellent! You never really understand this aspect of cancer until you’re in the thick of it. Here are my thoughts:
    1. Cancer is most certainly NOT a gift. Ever. Unless you were such a miserable soul beforehand that your own mortality made you appreciate those that love you and you are now pleasant to be around.
    2. Those that tout the ‘be positive’ mantra must be in denial of some kind because if you’re really being honest most of us are dealing with PTSD in some way, shape or form. Personally, I think its a mask some people wear to hide behind what cancer takes away from us.
    4. I’d love to see the ‘lost their battle’ changed to something like…’lived with’ because we never lose to something we never had a choice of in the first place.
    6. I’m not at all brave. I’m just doing what I have to do to stay alive as everyone else is. I believe brave is used because people view it as a compliment of sorts as they can’t wrap their minds around having to go thru what we do. I’m certainly not stronger than anyone else. Half the time I’d rather run in the other direction and pretend none of this is happening.
    7. I’m actually OK with ‘new normal’ because before cancer there were no scars, lymphodema, expanders, weight gain/loss, fatigue, pain and all the rest cancer leaves us with. We have to adjust to our new bodies as our ‘old’ ones are gone forever.
    I love your blogs. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Its so comforting to know we aren’t alone in this ‘Journey we were gifted’ 🙂

    1. Susan, Thank you for sharing your thoughts so clearly and honestly. I dislike #1 and #4 the most. And #2 is right there with those. I honestly feel we can all do better. It is time for an overhaul of sorts and the ‘lost their battle’ one is a good place to start and would be so very doable. Thanks for sharing and for your kind words. Alone, never. Thank goodness, right?

  11. My biggest pet peeve is #2. I get tired of everyone telling me to be positive all of the time. Being a little grouchy now and then better not kill me. I know some grumpy people that live to well over 100… 😉

    1. Mandi, I know what you mean. #2 ranks right up there with me too. Being a little grouchy now and then is healthier in the long run IMO. Staying positive 24/7 (when you’re not feeling positive) is way too exhausting. Thank you for reading and commenting.

  12. Nancy, wonderful post, as always. The language is so attached to the social narrative of she-hero, and I resent it so much! I’ve tried “veteran” instead of survivor, and when someone said “you’re a survivor!” I snapped “not until I die of something else!” Don’t know what the right word is yet.

    So much of the social narrative was created for marketing and making others feel more comfortable about our reality.

    Thanks for the posts and I appreciate all the comments.

    My rude awakening about cancer language came while reading Oprah magazine, a few months after my diagnosis: “I lost a breast, but my heart grew.” Tossed it across the room and woke up to Pink October, and the social narrative. I was so unaware of the rigid contraints imposed upon us in the name of awareness.

    1. Kira, I appreciate all the comments too. My readers express themselves so well. And wow, that comment you read in the Oprah magazine was a real zinger… Don’t blame you for tossing the magazine across the room. Thank you for sharing your insights.

  13. I think it became common to use the positivity of those words in relation to the ugliness of this disease because most people simple don’t know how to relate to the disease otherwise unless they actually have it. I am a 43 year old woman who was diagnosed at age 40 with stage 4 breast cancer. While I do think these words are WAY overused and in some cases, simply inappropriate in any case (number 1, number 9, and in most cases, number 2), an occasional use of the others doesn’t completely offend me from certain people. Though I agree that we really need another word for journey…I use it myself in my blog for lack of a better term and I would really like an alternative!

    1. Cindy, That’s the problem, the words are so over-used; it’s like we use many of them without even thinking about it anymore. The words have evolved into a way of thinking about cancer if that makes sense; for ex, the whole positive spin which is so often put on things. And of course, I fully realize we don’t all agree on which ones are most problematic or even if any are. I just think we can do so much better. Thank you for reading and commenting. Keep working on finding that alternative for journey. I usually go with ‘experience’.

      1. Along those lines, I find it interesting that you rarely hear of a cancer death as a death but as someone “losing their battle”. You don’t often hear deaths from other diseases characterized that way. People “die” of heart disease, car crashes, strokes, alzheimers, etc. But they “lose their battle” to cancer.

  14. Hello Nancy,

    Thank you so much for addressing the question of words. I, too, abhor cliches and cant and glib replies.

    I heartily agree that words matter, and I am beyond delighted that the wonderful, smart, thinking readers of your blog are considering better alternatives to the tired and defeated terms we’re so familiar with.

    I wish I had $5.00 for every time someone told me to just stay positive. These unsolicited words of advice come from those who have not experienced cancer themselves. I don’t need advice. I need strength and courage to live one day at a time.

    I received a request for a donation to a cancer foundation and I appreciated the honesty and freshness of the wording:

    “How many time have you heard, or even said, that so-and-so has been ‘touched’ by cancer? Cancer doesn’t ‘touch’. It hits hard, it devastates. It is overwhelming, life-altering, and at times, it is deadly. . . you know far too many people who have been impacted in this way by this sudden and devastating disease. . .”

    Those words better describe the reality than some I’ve heard.

    I’ve been broadsided by cancer. It’s traumatic. It’s distressing. It’s an emotional roller coaster. It’s ongoing. I’m living with the collateral damage, no matter how wonderful I look.

    I would love to have better word choices at my disposal to express life that has been marked by trauma. It would be wonderful to have a broader understanding in the wider culture of the upheaval cancer can cause. I would love alternative vocabulary for “journey”, “battle”, and “win/lose”.

    I would love the language to reflect a deeper understanding of cancer and its aftermath. I do notice in my newspaper more and more articles being written by those who have experienced cancer. I think that the effects of this will be cumulative. It is the ongoing conversations that will turn the tide.

    Thank you, Nancy, for being a catalyst in the transformation of the language about cancer. Your efforts are not in vain. I sincerely appreciate this forum where a perspective that questions the current attitudes in the culture reflects the sentiments of those of us in the cancer community.

    This is an important discussion.

    I find your comments helpful and supportive and thought provoking. Your blog is a lovely source of community for many of us.

    Most gratefully,
    Honey Bee

    1. Honey Bee, Oh my gosh, I never thought about that ‘touched by cancer’ one… There are so many trite words and phrases out there regarding the cancer experience. As readers have said, it is often an effort to ‘lighten’ things up for others. Does it matter? Obviously, it does to some and it doesn’t to others. And as Cancer Curmudgeon mentioned, many cancer patients even embrace some of them. To each her own. But I am hoping that at least everyone can think about their word choices a bit more. Thank you for being part of this community and for chiming in on this.

  15. A new bit of cancer language slang that I’m seeing starting to creep in with a foothold is to refer to people with breast cancer as “Pinkies”. I just made another blog post about this word and the problem with it. It perpetuates a negative, mythical, harmful stereotype that breast cancer is a pink, fun, easy disease. Reducing people with cancer to a childish, cutesy word and trivializes the reality. I haven’t seen it outside of a few areas of Facebook, and my opinion on the matter isn’t exactly a popular one, but I do hope that this slang never takes off. I am not anyone’s Pinkie. Breast Cancer is not Pinkie. Stop with infantilizing and trivializing and sexualizing and prettifying something fatal and cruel and ugly. It’s not helping.

    1. Susanne, I haven’t heard that one yet. Let’s hope it doesn’t take off. I couldn’t agree more about the infantilizing, trivializing and sexualizing of breast cancer – it all needs to stop. Thank you for reading and commenting.

    2. Susanne……thank you. I knew I couldn’t be the only one that hates this term.I hate the term pink, pinkies or anything pink for that matter. It’s insulting.

  16. Pink = pink is the word I detest. Cancer is not a pink cupcake party and we are not little girls in pink dresses. The idea that “pink” is supposed to represent women with breast cancer is insulting. Cancer is not pink….it is beyond black.

    1. Michele, You are not alone in your disdain for pink. I happen to still like the color very much. I do not like how breast cancer has been “over-pinktified” however. Breast cancer should not be prettied up. Period. Thank you for sharing.

  17. The other words I hate are – “I know what I would do if it was me.” No you F……g don’t know because it’s not you. People think they are helping with their opinions but I hope they never have to eat the words they spew. Nobody could possible comprehend the decisions we have to make or the magnitude of those decisions. Nobody can fathom what the walk is like in our shoes. Sorry, I get a very passionate about my feelings on the subject of breast cancer.

  18. Thanks for a great start to a much-needed discussion of language and the expectations it imposes. You’ve hit on most of my Most-Hated list.

    I despise “journey” and “new normal.” The latter is a constant reminder that we are forever changed by cancer – it’s as though those who use it just won’t allow us to be simply normal, simply ourselves. I don’t need a reminder from my MO that I’ve had cancer, thank you very much! My husband and I had a good discussion of this one day and I was interested – and supported – to learn that it has bothered him for a long time, too.

    What’s especially appalling to me is that so many professionals (nurse navigators, support-group facilitators, etc.) use all of the above phrases. The same with sites such as and even lbbc. It places a subtle pressure on all women with breast cancer to conform to the paradigm of dealing gracefully, cheerfully and easily with a life-threatening disease. That really needs to stop.

    We can do our bit by having these discussions with our families, with our medical team, with our friends. Those who have the ear of the media or others (funeral homes, for example) can take the discussion even farther out into the world. It won’t be easy to put some of these cliches to rest but at the least we can stick up for our viewpoints and plant a few seeds of understanding.

    1. I hate everything pink. I resent that pink ribbon. Its insulting. We are not little girls in pink ribbons. Breast cancer is not a pink cupcake party.

  19. Oh, and the notion of throwing a head shaving party or good bye parties for the breast/s or hair leaves me steaming. Maybe it feels good to some women but as advice for how to cope with loss???? NO WAY.

  20. I love this post. The language around cancer is like that of no other disease. Thinking positive thoughts and battling on are real bugbears. I also feel so uncomfortable with those who say ‘ I kicked cancer in the butt!’ Sorry but you just don’t know and it’s not a disease that will retreat with butt kicking! I had NED no evidence of disease for three years but a new tumour cropped up. I have NED at the moment but I don’t think positive fighting talk and butt kicking are going to keep cancer from returning. A Bilateral mastectomy and AIs should help but I’m not at war I’m just living with the illness like the rest of you are.

  21. Wow Nancy! This is just what I needed. I had such an extreme reaction to the AI’s, joint subluxations, muscle weakness, brain fog, chronic fatigue, vertigo, even developed shingles as a result of the stress. I eventually had to give them up this past month. I was actually afraid to tell my doctor because I did not feel like the “warrior survivor”. Instead, language like this made me feel more like a cancer failure. I wasn’t walking 60 miles in my pink shirt, bald head, fist pumping with a big grin on my face. I was the one crying because I hurt so bad I could not walk around the block. I do believe in having a positive outlook, but there are also days where nothing but a hot bath and a good cry can care. Language absolutely matters. During my radiation treatments I refused to think of my radiation as blasting away cancer cells. Instead, I meditated on a warm healing light gently healing my body. This seemed so much better to me than the violent images that are often associated with cancer recovery. Thank you so much for this post!

  22. I think some of the battle language is a natural reaction to a diagnosis. I remember when my wife, Nancy, was first diagnosed our instinct was to rally. We were going to kick cancer’s ass! Rah rah rah. It took a month or two for the reality to set in. So when I see that kind of language from newbies I don’t sweat it – they’ll learn. I think of the northern society types who ventured down to Manassas to watch the south get their ass kicked as the Civil War started. They learned – it ain’t so glorious.

    I read also in the comments some thoughts on the word ‘survivor’ as well. I wonder why people don’t just use ‘victim’ instead. Of course nobody wants to be a victim. But that’s kind of the point and I refer you to trap #2. The passive voice accurately captures the fact that cancer is something that just happens to you. Honestly I can’t think of a reason to use a different word. But I’m interested to learn otherwise.

    1. Trevor, Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It’s always good to hear from a spouse of someone who’s been diagnosed. Love your wife’s blog, btw. I’ve never been a fan of the battle language. I’ve never felt like a warrior. And I loathe the lost her/his battle with cancer. That’s the one that really needs to go IMO. And as far as the survivor label goes, that one doesn’t fit just right either, but admittedly, I use it because I haven’t come up with something else. I don’t like victim, though as you said, it sort of fits because cancer is something that happens to you. Words are tricky I guess. Each person needs to pick and choose what fits best for her/him. My gripe is when society tries to dictate what they should be and how we should deal with cancer and grief too. Thanks again for sharing.

  23. Just found your blog and feel so understood and validated by your posts and the comments. There needs a LIKE button (not just Reply) for every comment! I should be doing weekend chores but exploring this blog is such good therapy I can’t give it up this morning.
    When I was first diagnosed last fall (2015) I thought my “easy” diagnosis (DCIS, no lymph node involvement, small tumor, single mastectomy, no rad, no chemo) would be way easier than, say, Lou Gherig’s Disease, multiple sclerosis, you name it. Losing a breast would be way easier than losing an arm, a leg, my vision or hearing, my husband, a child, etc. Everyone complimented me on my positive attitude. I, myself even thought, “I can so do this.”
    Then, reality set in, the “new normal” (ha ha) and the realization that “it’s all hard.” Loss is loss, and it’s all hard. Easy cancer is hard, hard cancer is hard, it all SUCKS. For me it has been way more traumatizing emotionally than physically. I am surprised. No one warns you. Now that I’ve identified the reality, no one believes me. Reading blogs like yours and your commenters validates me that “I am not the only one.” That there, is healing in itself. I am not alone.
    I think everyone in the breast cancer care community should be tased (tazed? Sp?) You know how a policeman can’t use a taser on a criminal until he submits to being tased once himself. I know this is irrational but how cool would it be if everyone in the care community really did know just how we felt. Maybe they should wear a big red C on their front so we could spot them from the fakers.
    I seem to have quite the snarky attitude when it comes to CANCER and I hope it fades b/c I know I am no fun to live with or be around. But trying to “be/think/act positive” takes more muster than I can give, so thank y’all for the permission to feel my snark. I’ll call myself a “victim” any time, b/c I did not ask for this, did not see it coming, and feel very taken advantage of and misunderstood. I loved the “we haven’t been ‘touched’ by cancer” it is more like sucker punched/blind sided/gobsmacked.
    I use the word “slog” to describe my experience. “Journey” implies a destination or ending is in sight, and perhaps you are even on a “journey” with friends, a sort of adventure or dream vacation. Ha. “Slough of Despond” also comes to mind, although I would have to actually look that one up, a reference in literature, I believe. I picture a swamp of all swamps, dark and dim, hot and murky, mud and muck clinging to my boots and slowing me down, sucking me back every time I try to make progress, scary and unfamiliar sights and sounds bombarding my senses, stinky gaseous odors assaulting my olfactory nerves, knuckles dragging from the exhaustion. A slog is ongoing, there is no end in sight. You never know what the next day will bring.
    I was so proud of myself when I decided I didn’t like the “battle” metaphors! I thought I was the first one to not like them! Instead of a survivor/thriver/warrior/soldier, I just call myself a “live-er,” as in I am “living” with it. I’m not dying, not thriving, just living, one day at a time. I’m also a liver, like chopped liver, like the internal organ that detoxifies our bodies. Liver, like the food no one likes (but I actually do).
    My last word is “Valor.” My club is The Valor League. But I will also be happy to join the World’s Shittiest Sorority, too! I looked up valor and the dictionary says “a strength of mind or spirit that enables a person to encounter danger with firmness; personal bravery.” League is because it takes Olympic size guts and perserverance to endure another day. I want to get a ring with a pearl and a ruby in it. Pearl b/c oysters take a piece of grit and make it beautiful, and red ruby for the blood of valor.
    Thanks for letting me share. I feel better.

    1. Dear Prov31

      This site is a wonderful outlet for the truth…
      We are not little girls adorned with pink ribbons and bows…we are not on a journey we plodding through hell…nothing pretty about that. We are angry…not at anyone. .we don’t kick puppies. ..we are just mad…devastated. ..we are victims.

      The medical community treats us with a cold matter of fact attitude. They leave out much needed information. .knowledge that could help prepare us for what’s coming next..although you can’t really prepare for the reality of breast cancer. I don’t feel like a survivor. ..i like your word. .liver. we live through every day..every side effect. ..every ache. .every pain..every loss. This is not a journey that will ever end. Breast cancer is forever.

      This site helps remind us we are not alone. So glad you found all of us. Welcome.

    2. Prov31wannabe, Welcome! I’m very glad to hear you feel validated and understood here, as that’s a major part of why I do what I do. And yes, like buttons for comments would be awesome. Thank you for sharing – glad to hear you feel better!

  24. Thank you for letting me spout my opinion about the term “lost the battle”, when referring to the demise of a cancer patient. My thoughts on the matter are that you don’t lose the battle if cancer kills you. You lose the battle if you let cancer define you. I’m defined by what I love, and by my various interests. Having cancer is, of course, no minor matter, and I don’t mean to diminish the seriousness of the impact the disease has. Cancer has certainly altered my life (48 hour chemo cycles, every two weeks, plus dealing with side effects). That said, I acknowledge that I am a cancer patient, but I am a cancer patient in addition to being the sum of all that I love and all that interests me. Cancer is not the focus of my life. I fear I might not be explaining this as well as I could, but I sure thank you, Nancy, for your gracious invitation to comment on your website. I wish and pray all the best for you.

  25. Hey Nancy,

    I hope you do read this comment, as random as it may be. My name is Rachael and I am an events student and as a part of our semester we have to put on an event (shock right?). Our event is to raise funds for the ovarian cancer foundation and we are putting on an art show in order to do this.

    Our teacher of course has suggested to put forth the word ‘survivor’ to artists in order for them to create works around what the word means to them. I, on the other hand, find this rather cliche and was wanting to perhaps get an opinion from you. What kind of event around cancer would you like to see or rather what kind of themes and words?

    I’m a bit out there and I do like the idea of embracing the negative side of things that happen to human beings. I believe expressing our “negative” emotions is very important in general (I’m often called a sook because I cry all the time, dont believe in pushing how I am feeling down and not being true to my emotions). I love art, and I love any thing that pushes the norm and analyses the human experience. In order to create a body of work around this I would possibly need to ask people who have had cancer about the “shit” days or things people dont really talk about.

    In your experience, is that sort of thing overlooked or would you find it offensive in any way? Looking forward to your thoughts and thank you for educating me further.


    1. Rachael, The expected “how to do do cancer” narrative that seems most prevalent, IMO, seems to be the one that suggests a cancer patient should don her boxing gloves, fight this battle by “kicking cancer to the curb” and while doing so, keep smiling. And with breast cancer, of course, comes all the pink hoopla. I feel all this puts additional stress on the patient because it doesn’t allow for genuineness. Like you, I very much believe in expressing genuine emotions, including “negative” ones. Be you. Be real. It’s enough. That’s sort of my mantra or advice I give most often. One reason I wrote my memoir was to further expose cancer’s ugly side. So yes, that sort of thing, as you called it, is overlooked. I call it ignoring reality. Art is an excellent vehicle for expressing emotions, so good for you for embracing all human emotions and for looking beyond the norm here, too. As for the word, survivor, I don’t like it that much, but I do use it because it’s hard to come up with a better alternative. Good luck with your project.

      1. Thank you for your reply Nancy.
        Even as someone that has not experienced such things, your blog has helped me question and understand things I would have never questioned prior. I loved reading your blog as a part of my research and hope your comments will help me convince my team mates to look at things from another angle.
        Keep on writing and spreading awareness 🙂

  26. This was very enlightening… I stumbled on this blog doing research for creating a GYN oncology website. I wanted nice headings on the Home page photos, but I didn’t know what to put. This has been the most difficult assignment, since I have not experienced cancer. I will try to be more direct – less fluff “fighter” words, and no survivor terms! “Life after therapy” sounds better. I would love to link to this blog if you don’t mind. You have so much down to earth information that would be really beneficial to patients. Thank you for being real. I know if I was going through this type of experience, I would want honest and direct communication.

    1. Christina, I’m glad you stumbled upon my blog, too. You are more than welcome to link to this blog post or any other, for that matter. As always, I aim to keep things real. I don’t sugarcoat cancer. Thank you for sharing your feedback. Good luck with your research.

  27. Nancy, I agree with all that your saying along with all the other posts. No way is cancer a gift and no one understands what we go through unless they’ve witnessed it themselves. Of course, I don’t wish that on anyone. I went to an amazing one day program in Atlanta called Chemoflage. I learned a lot about going through chemo and after. One phrase they used was “Thriver”. I agree with that term — everyday I wake up and get out of bed shows that I am continuing to thrive. I never call myself a Survivor nor do I say that I beat this. Cancer only transforms you to a new self because your old self is gone and you don’t have a choice! Thank you so much for writing about this. You are a true inspiration!

    1. Faith, I don’t know, I like to think people can understand without going through it themselves. I cling to that notion. Right or wrong. That Chemoflage program sounds interesting. I attended a class, which turned out to be rather unhelpful. I write about that in my books. Ugh… As for the labels, I know others who like thriver too. That one doesn’t work for me either. I have yet to find a label that works for me. Not that I need one, but sometimes you’re put in situations where you have to call yourself something (regarding cancer) and I tend to go back to survivor because it’s the one people get. Sort of. I should write about this topic again. Thank you for reading this post. Cancer language is a big deal.

  28. Nancy, I just recently found your blog. Thank you for saying what I feel. I have been thinking that there is something wrong with me because I didn’t ever agree with all the language that people spoke. Almost all the people in my life speak this way and I tend to see it all as a big farce, another burden of cancer. I was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer from the beginning. I haven’t been able to put my feelings about it all into words without others thinking I was just being negative! So, thank you, thank you, thank you!

    1. Lisa, I am so glad you commented. Thank you. Lots of us don’t agree with the current state of cancer language. Much of it does create an extra burden. I’m sorry about that. Remember, it’s okay to let people know what words bother or even hurt you. And being honest about your feelings – whatever they are – does NOT mean you are being negative. I hope you have a few supportive people who allow you to be real. My best to you and thanks again for sharing.

  29. Hello! My huge wish, after reading the article and all comments, is the answer to:

    “What is the right language recommendation?”

    It’s easy to list all the terms we don’t like, but my friends, family, and blog readers also ask “what should I say?”

    I’m facing my 3rd bout with breast cancer since 2002, and am Stage IV metastatic. My identical twin sister faced 3 bouts and we laid her to rest 5 years ago. Together, we wrote articles on the TOP 10 Stupid Things People Say to Bre?” I paused, laughed, then said: “I’m both!”.

    (it gets worse)

    She promptly jumped in with “Oh, GOOD, the Metavivor T-shirt is much prettier.” WHAT? I said, “I would rather not have the t-shirt and please make this the last time you say this to anyone.” I don’t think she understood.

    (it gets worse)

    Now most people are wearing a light pink T-shirt which says SURVIVOR on their backs. Like “I’m a Survivor”.
    Mine just says METASTATIC. Like “I’m Metastatic (vs. a Survivor). It was horrible!

    Back to my wish. Who can provide terms we recommend or that most survivors, including Metavivors, do like? I have stopped reading blogs that bash “pink” and bash organizations for not making a bigger deal of metastatic, including the push to direct more research dollars to mets.

    In summary, we, as a large group, need to be the ones to recommend the best language. There’s no blame on innnocent people who don’t know what to say then use war words, recommend staying positive, and so much more.

    Let’s be part of the solution. Who has labels that they prefer?

  30. The misunderstanding of stage 4 cancer -people might remark:
    You got this
    You can beat this
    You’ll “win”
    If anyone can beat this you will,

    The subsequent discussions about death:
    We die, we are dead, we did not pass on, go elsewhere, or are as far as we know in a better place. Refered to as no longer with us I think sugar coats the cause of death and alleviates the fear, guilt, and understanding of metastatic breast cancer / of metastatic cancer -period.

    Prayers – I cannot tell you how many people use this as an avoidance tactic to not have a real discussion or to make themselves feel like they’re doing something to help, I know most of these promises are empty.

    Pink Ribbons as proof of action – it’s not words but it’s a symbol of the broad misinformation and misappropriation of collected funds to allow public awareness of a ribbon as a step to a cure or to the false notion that they did their part. Please – if anything is hurting metastatic disease in the public eye it’s this.

    Finally – if one says call if you need anything but never call to offer specific help of any kind or just show up (with a quick text or call to see if it’s okay) and do something is still good.

    That’s a big part of language as a way to avoid personal involvement or engagement with a scary disease. It has to change or the 5 to 7% of research dollars for mbc will never increase.


      1. As a widow of a man that fought his metastatic brain cancer for nearly 7 years, I agree what he went through was not a “cancer journey’. Journey’s are what you choose to take, no one would ever choose to experience cancer. As for cancer survivor, does that mean that those that loose their lives to this disease are cancer losers” ? Are they the ones that get ” kicked off the island? I choose to believe that he was called Home, that his job on earth was done, ( even though everyday I need him). I do question the way he had to go, it was surely a battle for him as a type A person, and heartbreaking to those that loved him to see what this disease threw at him. And these post -death memories are what we, his family , navigate through today . When it overwhelms me i remind myself he is now Home and safely away from this “cancer “. My apologies for speaking on his behalf ….he is my other half….and now only i can speak about this through my eyes. Perhaps I have no right to comment on these terms as just a mere observing spouse along the cancer ride, but being immersed in this cancer world for so long has sadly given me a front row seat to a show i wish we never had to attend.

        1. JC, I am very sorry your husband died due to metastatic brain cancer. You are welcome to speak here any time you wish. I’m sorry you had to have that front row seat. Thank you for sharing.

  31. Hi my darling mum’s just been diagnosed with breast cancer and well it’s too far to do anything some words of wisdom to say would be wonderful in these dark times any advice caring for her is already so hard and we’re not far in!

    1. L, I’m sorry to hear about your mum’s diagnosis. It sounds like you will be a wonderful support person for her. I don’t really have any words of wisdom. Sorry. Let her be real. Listen and take your cues from her. Don’t tell her how to feel. Skip the platitudes. That’s probably my best advice in a nutshell. Here’s a post that comes to mind that you might be interested in: Thank you for reading and taking time to share. My best to you both.

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