My shock diagnosis of bowel cancer got me thinking about the language around cancer.
It really annoyed me. It is all-pervasive — ‘she has cancer’, ‘he has cancer’, as opposed to being contained and specific, for example, she has a cancer in her breast, he has a cancer in his prostate.
Saying a person has cancer creates a misperception that a person’s whole body, as opposed to a contained, specific area, is cancerous. Whilst in a minority of cases, if someone has terminal cancer this may be true, in the majority of cases, it isn’t.
It’s time to change the default language around cancer. It is far more empowering to say someone has a cancer than she or he has all-consuming cancer. The same can be said about other conditions. Referring to a person ‘with a disability’ as opposed to ‘disabled’, or who ‘has diabetes’ instead of ‘diabetic’, emphasises and empowers the healthy part of that person. It focuses on the areas that are functioning well rather than the sickness.
Prior to my bowel resection surgery, I recall the conversation my husband and I had with our then 12 and 15-year-old sons. I really wanted them to understand this small but significant point. With phones switched off, seated around our dining table, I downplayed the potential seriousness of my situation — ‘I have a small polyp in my bowel and a few of the cells in and around it have some cancerous cells. It should be fine, but just to be on the safe side, I am having a larger operation. It’s a very big operation, and for a while it will appear like I’m sicker than I really am’.
We steered clear of statistics, allaying chaos and fear, navigating instead towards hope and stability. We sidestepped the ‘what ifs’, deciding if they asked, we would then respond. The subtext was very clear — ‘Mum does not have the Big C, a small part of her bowel does!’.
The last thing I wanted and feared they would hear is, ‘your mum’s got cancer’. One of my friends had already enthusiastically offered to go wig shopping with me, making my natural hair well and truly stand on end.
It seems that ‘Sex and the City’ star Cynthia Nixon and I have something in common. She also believed in being open and candid with her kids, downplaying her breast cancer diagnosis. “I talked to them together and basically I told them, ‘you know, they found some breast cancer in my right breast. It’s very small. It’s very early. I’m going to have an operation. They’re going to take it out, and then we’re going to have six-and-a-half weeks of radiation every weekday, and this is like what Grandma went through and I’m going to be fine’”.
I wonder, what did Ben Stiller tell his kids about his prostate cancer?
During such a time of fear and anxiety, containing the cancer to a specific body part empowers the rest of the body to be in a state of wellbeing. Succumbing to an overall diagnosis of cancer dilutes the healing effect, thereby weakening your whole self.
In my case, I was not malignant. The polyp in and around one small area of my bowel was 21mm, to be precise.
It didn’t diminish the huge ramification of a cancer diagnosis, which no semantics of language can change, but it did relieve some of its burdensome weight. Surely it’s psychologically easier to recover from something specific rather than an all-pervasive everything? That’s why it should be the little ‘c’ instead.
Ros Ben-Moshe’s memoir and part healing guide is Laughing at cancer: How to Heal with Love, Laughter and Mindfulness.