I recently came across a 2019 Study from the UK completed by The Macmillion Cancer Support center. They polled 2,000 people who have or had cancer and learned:
- 42% Thought words such as hero, cancer victim, and cancer stricken were disempowering
- 44% thought it was inappropriate to say someone had lost their battle with cancer
- Almost one in three people living with cancer said they struggle to find the words to talk about their disease
This study really resonated with me and my personal experience. One of the most frustrating things about cancer is the well-meaning but ultimately unhelpful cliches so often used when talking to cancer patients.
In summary, below are my least-favorite cancer cliches:
Cancer Is A Journey!
Cancer is not a journey. It's not a fun adventurous trip or vacation. Cancer is a long, arduous, physically, and emotionally taxing day-in and day-out struggle. Referring to a cancer patient's disease as a journey implies they should look forward to their treatments - as if completing cancer treatments will generate profound personal growth. Expecting a cancer patient to come through their treatments with a newfound insight on life and love is too much pressure! The goal is to come through alive – full stop.
You’re a Cancer Victim!
Phrases like “cancer stricken” or “cancer victim” can have a very negative impact on patients and their families. These terms can sound like patients are being cursed with a nasty disease due to their wicked behavior rather than an unlucky medical condition. Instead, use terms such as “ill” or “sick” when referring to someone who has cancer. This will help to reduce the emotional stress that comes with a cancer diagnosis.
This cliche suggests that cancer can be overcome with sheer willpower, and that the person who has cancer is somehow responsible for their diagnosis. Cancer is not something that can be overcome with willpower; it is a disease that requires care and support.
God Doesn't Give Us More Than We Can Handle
Cancer patients are already feeling like they are not in control of their lives, and the notion that God may have something else in store for them only makes things worse. There are other ways to console someone who is dealing with a cancer diagnosis, like "I'm here for you" or "I'll be praying for you."
Some patients find comfort in religious beliefs and find solace in saying prayers, some may not. No matter what someone's belief system might be, there is always room for compassion and support.
You're A Warrior!
When we talk about cancer, it's important to avoid referring to patients as "heroes" “fighters” or "warriors". Battling and fighting make it sound like the person has a chance of losing – which can be overwhelming and/or terrifying. It creates an expectation that the patient always appears calm and brave, encouraging them to internalize their terror and worry. Instead, try using words like "facing a challenge" or "dealing with a difficult situation". By doing so, you'll show that you understand and respect what these patients are going through.
Which cliches did I miss? Any that you found particularly grating not mentioned above? Sound off in the comments!