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Cancer clichés leave people disempowered, says charity

Charity warns against terms like ‘victim’ and ‘brave’

Jo Carlowe

Monday, 28 January 2019

Well-meaning euphemisms and simplistic clichés are leaving thousands of people with cancer feeling disempowered and isolated, according to a cancer charity.

An eye-opening new survey by Macmillan of more than 2,000 people who have or have had cancer reveals the confusion and emotional turmoil caused by trying to find the ‘right’ words for someone diagnosed with cancer, and reveals the honest and divided views of patients themselves.

It shows that the people who have had a cancer diagnosis considered positive descriptions of themselves such as ‘hero’ as just as unpopular as ‘cancer stricken’ and ‘victim’. Respondents said words like these were inappropriate as they were disempowering (42%), isolating (24%) and put people under pressure to be positive (30%).

The poll reveals the words: ‘cancer stricken’, ‘hero’ and ‘cancer victim’ as the least popular way to describe someone with cancer. Most popular were: ‘person with cancer’, ‘cancer patient,’ and ‘cancer survivor’.

The terms: ‘a war’, ‘a battle’ and ‘a journey’ were the least popular ways to describe someone’s cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Karen Roberts, chief nursing officer at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “These results show just how divisive and ‘Marmite’ simple words and descriptions can be. Cancer throws all kinds of things your way, and struggling to find the words, and the emotional turmoil caused when our friends and family don’t get it ‘right’ only makes lives feel even more upended. We know that there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ person with cancer, so it follows that people will prefer different ways of talking about it. We hear from people every day who face this problem, that at its worst could even stop people getting the support they need.

“By drawing attention to this we want to encourage more people to talk about the words they prefer to hear, and stop the damage that can be caused to people’s wellbeing and relationships.”

Nearly one in three (29%) people living with cancer said they struggle to find the words to talk about the disease and more than one in four (28%) have difficulty talking honestly about their feelings around it.

The poll by YouGov also highlights preferences for clear and factual language when it comes to discussing the death of someone with cancer, with ‘died’ seen as appropriate by almost two-thirds (64%).

Euphemistic descriptions claiming someone had ‘lost their battle’ (44%) or ‘lost their fight’ (37%) to cancer were felt to be inappropriate by respondents, with many feeling that words such as these implied someone was defeated by cancer (61%) and undermine someone’s strength and courage (44%). But again, proving there is no one-size-fits-all approach to cancer, more than a quarter (26%) preferred ‘passed away’.

Media articles and posts on social networks were the worst offenders for using language deemed inappropriate, according to more than half (52%) of those surveyed. But almost one in five (19%) said their friends and family, and nearly one in 10 (8%) said even health professionals had done the same.

The charity today launches its new advertising campaign, ‘Whatever cancer throws your way, we’re right there with you,’ to highlight the chaos and turmoil of a cancer diagnosis and the support available.

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