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The power of words


When we asked our readers how they use words to describe cancer, we saw a lively discussion emerge on our Facebook page. Language not only provides a framework for understanding our reality, it also helps shape our reality. One thing is certain: words matter. That's why we endlessly debate about labels and titles and descriptors. What makes a person heroic? When does survivorship begin? Why is someone an inspiration? How should we talk about cancer? The Man in the Mirror

I remember the first time I referred to myself as a man. Not as a male, mind you, but as a man--a grownup; an adult. I was in my early 20s. Prior to that, I had been a child or a boy or a teenager or an adolescent or a young adult or a guy. I saw a headline in the local newspaper about someone my age who was involved in a motorcycle accident. It read, "Man Injured when Motorcycle Collides with Truck." I remember thinking it felt odd to refer to someone my age as a man, without the modifier "young." I decided to try it on myself. It changed my self-perception. I walked a little taller; felt a little more confident.Identity Crisis

In 2009, researchers at the University of Connecticut asked 168 young to middle-aged adults who had previously experienced cancer about which self-identifier best reflected their post-cancer reality. Eighty-three percent of respondents endorsed survivor identity, 81 percent identified themselves as a "person who has had cancer," 58 percent called themselves a "patient," and 18 percent thought of themselves as a "victim." See the study here.The researchers found that "survivor identity correlated with better psychological well-being and post-traumatic growth, victim identity with poorer well-being; neither identifying as a patient nor a person with cancer was related to well-being." They concluded that the way cancer patients identified themselves would directly impact their interactions with healthcare providers and influence health behavior changes.Invasion of the Body Snatchers

In a recent New York Times editorial, author Daniel Menaker discussed the pros and cons of referring to the cancer experience in military terms. If cancer is a foe that must be vanquished, does that mean that "those who die are by definition, at least figuratively, losers?" When Menaker confers with his cancer team, "it seems more calming, less victimizing, to think of the disease as a problem, not an enemy." Yet, he wrote, he also understands why some patients find it "emotionally useful to view cancer as an enemy," because doing so can motivate them and help them feel less frightened, more focused.What's in a Name

In my work at CURE, I generally try to avoid what writer Susan Sontag referred to as "the metaphorization of illness." She believed illness metaphors stigmatized the people who have the disease, further harming them. Essentially, she argued, using military language to describe the cancer experience only serves to reduce a complex situation to a simple battle with clear sides. And such a framework for meaning is actually less engaging, not more.How do you see yourself? What language do you use to describe your cancer experience? Do you find it helpful to use combat metaphors?

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