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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? 




Tuesday 27th of March 2018

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?


Tuesday 27th of March 2018

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.


Monday 28th of December 2015

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.


Thursday 31st of December 2015

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.

My Courageous Battle with Courage - The After Proton Blog

Wednesday 11th of November 2015

[…] Nancy Stordahl, who also wrote about courage and cancer. She effectively makes the point that words matter, and I couldn’t agree more. In that regard she says, “Let’s not automatically turn to worn […]

Beth L. Gainer

Sunday 14th of April 2013


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


Sunday 14th of April 2013

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.

Weekly Round Up | Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer

Saturday 13th of April 2013

[...] Nancy is weighing in on the language of cancer -  “always a hot topic in Cancer Land”  – and indeed it’s a hot topic too this week on The Cancer Curmudgeon’s blog and for Scorchy, aka The Sarcastic Boob who writes: Those of us with cancer have to grow a skin that is thicker than normal.  Wanting those who would not normally have a care in the world about cancer to stop and consider how we feel is normal; expecting them to do so is Utopian. [...]

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