Words matter. Nine cancer language traps.

Is It Time to Update Our Cancer Language?

The language of cancer is always a hot topic in Cancer Land. There’s always discussion about it going on somewhere it seems; it’s one of those hot topics that keeps popping up.

For example, you’ve probably seen a fair number of lists suggesting things one should or should not say to a person who’s been diagnosed with cancer. Maybe there are too many lists – then again, maybe not…

There also continues to be mounting discontent for many about over used cancer labels and phrases.

I’ve written about this before and undoubtedly, will again.

I admit that as an educator and writer I suppose I’m a bit word obsessed. Cancer language matters to me and that’s why I choose to share opinions I have about it from time to time. It’s another sort of advocacy work that’s needed. This does not mean I expect, or even want everyone else to agree with me. Each person has the right to his/her own opinions here too.

The topic of cancer language when a person dies from it, resurfaced again last week.

As most of you know, the renowned film critic, Roger Ebert, died last week of cancer. After pondering over how I often heard this news delivered by various news sources, I shared the following statement on my Nancy’s Point Facebook page:

“I wonder how many times in the last 24 hours I’ve heard it said that Roger Ebert lost his courageous battle with cancer. Um no, cancer took his life. Words matter. We can do better.”

Then I tweeted out that same statement and within seconds I received a response from Dr. Michael Wosnick, who at almost the exact moment had tweeted about a post he had just written called, When Dealing With Cancer, “Loser” Language Doesn’t Work. (No, it doesn’t!) That’s the beauty (and sometimes danger) of social media. Response and reaction is often immediate.

Please read Dr. Wosnick’s post. It’s excellent.

The response to that Facebook statement I made was overwhelming and surprising. There were over 125 “like clicks” on it, which is a lot for my little page.

There was agreement. Admittedly, there were a couple of people who commented who didn’t see things the same way as me. And of course, I realize most who disagreed simply chose not to click the like button, but still the number who did, caught me by surprise.

Some people, perhaps even some of you reading this blog post, might think well, what’s wrong with saying a person passed away after fighting/losing a long and courageous battle with cancer?

After all, cancer is a battle isn’t it?

People with stage IV cancer are courageous aren’t they?

Yes, but…

Again, read Dr. Wosnick’s words. 

I believe we can do better. 

For instance, when someone dies from cancer, why not just say exactly that?

As I’ve mentioned before, I had this very conversation about the “courageous battle” with my mother shortly before she died. On one of her last days at home when she was still somewhat her old self (as well as still quite opinionated I might add), she unexpectedly looked directly at me and said:

“Please don’t say in my obituary that I passed away after a long and courageous battle with cancer.”

I will never forget that moment.

Admittedly, at the time I didn’t think too much about her request. My mind was too full of other things.

“Okay, we won’t,” I promised her and we didn’t.

Why did/does it matter?

Because words matter. Because how we say things matters. Most importantly, because people matter.

How we surmise a person’s death matters too.

Let’s not automatically turn to worn out cliches and war metaphors, even if well-intended.

We can and should at least try to do better.

Is it time to update our cancer language?

I think it is.

Do you think cancer language needs “updating”?

Which word or phrase (if any) is most bothersome to you? 



33 thoughts to “Is It Time to Update Our Cancer Language?”

  1. I also wrote about this a while back (stilleasierthanchemo.com/there-are-no-losers-here) when others referred to my mother’s death as having lost to cancer. She didn’t like that phrasing either.

    1. Carolyn, Thanks for the link. Dr. Wosnick, who I mentioned in my post, also told me about this link. I’ll have to check it out.

  2. I have no problem with the word “battle”. As in “fight or struggle tenaciously to achieve or resist something.” Same holds with “fight”, I’m fighting. I think those words define it well. However, when I’m dead I haven’t lost anything except my life. Cancer doesn’t win. I agree the phrasing “lost the battle” indicates that somehow those of us who have died or will die have done something wrong. It is simply unfair. Words Matter, Thank you Nancy!

    1. Shelli, So I’m wondering, what do you say back to them? Although, I’d have to add, a person can be courageous and afraid at the same time. I just don’t like how so often people, especially newscasters and the like, turn to worn out cliches when someone dies. It’s quite trivializing I think. Thanks so much for commenting, Shelli.

  3. Although people mean well, I also don’t like to hear “lost a courageous battle to cancer” either. Why do we only say that about cancer? I don’t hear people say “he lost his battle with heart disease” or “she lost her battle with liver disease.” Are we glorifying cancer, or what? So someone who dies from diabetes is less courageous?

    1. Lindsay, That is such an excellent point. You’re right, we don’t say so and so lost their courageous battle with heart disease – which I believe is the number one killer of women. Cancer Land has a unique language and some of it needs an update. Thanks for your comment.

  4. Nancy, As always you hit the nail on the head. Yes, please! I will comment more soon, but also can we drop the “I am so sorry for your loss” like it is only their loss and we aren’t invested in it all?

    Terry Arnold, who is full of opinions on cancer and language!

  5. Hi Nancy,
    I think I’m a bit “word obsessed” too. When I see anything or hear someone say something about anyone “losing their battle with cancer,” I cringe…I mean I feel it viscerally in my body. It makes it sound like they lost and cancer won. I don’t care for the battle metaphor, personally, because then there are winners and losers. Yuck. This language is so ingrained in our culture that people (that haven’t been affected by cancer) think it’s what they are supposed to say. So yes, I think our language needs updating. Thanks for writing this.

  6. 1-I would say there are not enough lists about what not to say to those with cancer, but I am starting to suspect that the issue is that the majority of people reading those are cancer patients or caregivers, not the people who say those “offensive” (to some, to me) things.
    2-The euphemisms for death really sent me through the roof a couple of weeks ago because of a few things I read (ahem, Time magazine cover piece about the cure for cancer with the first 7 or 8 paragraphs being ALL military language–still cannot finish reading it. I started a post about it, but set it aside as potentially offensive, especially given the death of Donna Peach, a blogger I followed but did not interact with, though I see many did. Your post has given me the courage to revisit, and hopefully make it less offensive.

    1. Cancer Curmudgeon, Thanks for adding to this discussion. You might be right about those lists… I am weary of the military language too. I hope you do write your post. And thanks for mentioning Donna. She will be missed. We will not forget.

  7. There are a few words that really I would like to strike out when addressing people with Cancer – more so Breast Cancer.. One comment that I find personally annoying is “Fight like a girl” So how exactly does a girl fight? I am not a Cancer Warrior, I am not battling anything except trying to cope with a disease as would anyone. For some reason Breast Cancer seems to have acquired so many strange and even ridiculous terms in describing the disease. It is what it is it is an illness that causes pain and death. The Courageous battle irks me because it seems we are given that label if you have Cancer, in particular at the time of death My mothers OBIT didn’t read Here is Jenny she fought a courageous battle with AIDS. Yuck!! Nor do I want that on mine. Tell them I lived my life well!
    Love Alli xx

  8. Words do really matter. I also hate when someone dies from cancer and they write they lost their courageous battle to cancer. It so interesting that you mother wanted to be sure it wasn’t written that way for her. Sometimes though it can get hard to find the right words if you start to feel there are no words. Like the word survivor. It’s a mixed feeling for me as I don’t know what other word to use.What I do know is when someone dies from this disease it is such a cruel disease.

    1. Susan, You know, when my mother said that I was sort of surprised at the time because I had no idea she had even thought about that. Sometimes there are no “right” words to use and I totally get that. Still, a bit more thought from those setting examples would be nice. It’s too easy to turn to cliches, and I know I’m guilty of doing this myself. I’m trying to think more before speaking or writing. Like anything else, it takes practice! Thanks so much for commenting.

  9. I thought about this a little more Nancy , I believe so much of the reason why we stumble on words is because the ever present stigma surrounding death by Cancer . There is no getting around it or avoiding it death happens but instead of accepting it we choose to avoid mentioning “IT” just in case someone finds out. So we use words Did battle with, after a courageous fight, was a true warrior . Most people by the time our death arrives already are aware that there was cancer. WE have to stop being Afraid of the word, maybe then we can be a little more honest in accepting the cause. My step-dad was so stigmatized in telling anyone my mom had died of full blown Aids. She didn’t have a heart attack or unknown reasons. This was HER reason she is not here. Bad blood transfusion.. that simple yet exceedingly impossible to say!

    Love Allixx

    1. Alli, Thanks for sharing your additional thoughts. You make some good points. I’m so sorry about your mom and how it’s been difficult due to stigma to just say she died from AIDs. That’s wrong and very sad.

  10. Great post Nancy.
    Words do matter. There are double standards in the way cancer, and especially breast cancer, is being dealt and spoken and written, and a change begins through language.

  11. Nancy,

    I haven’t been checking Facebook as often as I’d like; I’m sure if I saw your statement, I would’ve hit “like,” as I couldn’t agree more. I will have to read Dr. Wosnick’s article. I agree that cancer language needs to stop being mythologized. There’s the noble warrior who wins the battle against the disease, and the noble “loser” who didn’t fight hard enough and lost. I can’t stand these myths, yet our culture continues to use these metaphors. People who die from the disease, any disease, really, are trying their best to stay alive. I also wrote about this topic at http://bethgainer.com/the-cancer-narrative/

    1. Beth, I hope you do get a chance to read Dr. Wosnick’s article. I really liked it. I know you and I are on the same page on this one. I do remember that great post of yours. Thank you for sharing the link. As always, your comment is much appreciated, Beth. Thank you.

  12. Lost battle with cancer is an annoying and overused cliché.
    The media never say lost battle with heart disease, diabetes
    or Alzheimer disease.
    They should express the same words with cancer.
    No one loses a battle with any disease.

    1. James, I agree. Hate the war metaphors, they just don’t work for me, but the ‘lost the battle’ one is in a class all by itself as far as I’m concerned. So cliche and so inadequate. Thank you for reading and sharing.

  13. Ok, I have read every post and I agree with all of your responses. What would you say in place of that outdated phrase Lost fight – Courageous Battle ?

    May she rest in peace following her long and difficult struggle?

    1. Karen, What about stating the simple truth – our dear one died from metastatic breast cancer, heart failure, a stroke or whatever the case might be.

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