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Nine Cancer Language Traps

Nine cancer language traps worth talking about.

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 The way we describe certain aspects of a cancer experience is simply out of date and worn out.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?

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

Looking Back, Looking Forward & Thinking "Small"
That Other "F" Word


Friday 28th of May 2021

I dont mind the "Journey". Because I took the scenic route, side effects galore, including hospitalizations, and kidney problems. I tell my friends, when they start their journey, to get on the dang Express Train! LOL.


Sunday 4th of October 2020

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!


Tuesday 6th of October 2020

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.


Monday 3rd of February 2020

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.

Love, Ilene


Thursday 6th of February 2020

Ilene, Thank you for your additions to this discussion.

Dana Manciagli

Sunday 9th of June 2019

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?


Thursday 19th of July 2018

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!


Thursday 19th of July 2018

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.