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What's in a Word? Let's Talk About Cancer


In an effort to help others understand a breast cancer diagnosis, survivors may choose to use unique words. Sometimes, these words can be offensive.

When I was diagnosed with stage 2B invasive ductal carcinoma, I felt my bottom jaw fall open. I had no idea what those words meant until the voice on the other end of the phone said, “Basically, you have breast cancer.” My response was a stunned and simple, “Oh.”

Those words, “You have breast cancer,” bopped around my brain like tiny metal pinballs for awhile, circling faster and faster before finally finding a place to settle. Once they did, and I had time to process them, it was my job to own the diagnosis. I had breast cancer. It was mine, all mine.

In an effort to explain the diagnosis to my loved ones, I chose to speak of cancer and all that it encompassed as a journey. Choosing that word gave my children hope. As they thought about the journey, they could picture me moving through breast cancer, not staying there.

Though this was a wonderful way of helping my family, others found the word “journey” associated with breast cancer to be offensive. They did not understand how I could speak so lightly of a such a serious disease. These people would much rather I use military terminology with regard to cancer. They preferred I “fight” cancer and acknowledge the fact that it was an all-out “war.”

When I did my best to help them understand the reasoning behind choosing the word “journey,” I was admonished and told a more appropriate term would be “battle.”

What’s in a word, especially when discussing breast cancer? Does it really matter if the person with cancer chooses to use military terminology to explain a life-changing diagnosis or is it okay for the person to come up with a word of his or her own choosing?

Journey, experience, battle, fight, war — what difference does it make? The premise is the same. A person diagnosed with breast cancer, whether male or female, has been thrust into a situation that is very unwanted, unexpected and unfamiliar. The terminology used to explain that predicament shouldn’t matter one iota.

But those terms not only ruffle the feathers of the general public, they also cause dissention among the ranks (excuse the use of a military term here) of fellow survivors. Some survivors abhor the “war-type” terminology used to explain a long-term breast cancer illness. So what’s a person to do?

Instead of taking the risk of using offensive language or equating breast cancer to a military maneuver, why can’t we just speak the truth and use whatever words necessary to convey that truth?

The truth is, breast cancer is a difficult experience that can often feel like a never-ending “battle” and sometimes the “journey” isn’t always through breast cancer. Sometimes, the “fight” ends in death and this is a well-known fact for those diagnosed with breast cancer. And that’s why every single day, we choose to give our all in an effort to survive. The only word to describe that is “brave.”

No matter what word or words used to describe a person’s bout with breast cancer, be kind and cut them some slack. There are no rule books with guidelines. There are no “get-out-of-cancer-free” cards. We do the best we can and pray we live to see another day. That’s all.

I’d like to close with a poem written by pink sister, Lisa Bonchek Adams, who lost her life to breast cancer in 2015. I think it sums things up rather nicely:

"When I Die"

by Lisa Bonchek Adams

When I die don’t think you’ve “lost” me.

I’ll be right there with you, living on in the memories we have made.

When I die don’t say I “fought a battle.” Or “lost a battle.” Or “succumbed.”

Don’t make it sound like I didn’t try hard enough, or have the right attitude, or that I simply gave up.

When I die don’t say I “passed.”

That sounds like I walked by you in the corridor at school.

When I die tell the world what happened.

Plain and simple.

No euphemisms, no flowery language, no metaphors.

Instead, remember me and let my words live on.

Tell stories of something good I did.

Give my children a kind word. Let them know what they meant to me. That I would have stayed forever if I could.

Don’t try to comfort my children by telling them I’m an angel watching over them from heaven or that I’m in a better place:

There is no better place to me than being here with them.

They have learned about grief and they will learn more.

That is part of it all.

When I die someday just tell the truth:

I lived, I died.

The end.

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