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Why You Should Use Inclusive Language When Talking About Cancer


A survivor of breast cancer explains what she has learned about inclusive language and how it can empower patients who have been diagnosed with cancer on their healing journey.

Am I really a cancer survivor or a “survivor of cancer?” Do the words I use matter when relating to myself or another who has been diagnosed with cancer?

Some conversations with my daughter and recent observations I have made on social media have led to my working on the way I communicate and relate to situations in the world around me. The use of sensitive terms and language, which can be limiting if one is not communicating in a mindful manner, help support inclusiveness.

In fact, in 2021 the American Psychological Association came out with a publication that addressed Inclusive Language Guidelines. As a licensed mental health professional, the guidelines are to help me be as open-minded as possible to individual differences and to help promote inclusivity in terms of how I relate professionally to clients of various backgrounds, sexual orientation, and for individuals who have or are experiencing an illness or injury, for example.

The topic of inclusive language hits home since having had breast cancer as I am in one of the groups in which the use of language matters in addressing a diagnosis. So, in terms of counseling someone who has been diagnosed with a type of cancer, I would not say cancer survivor or cancer patient — I would say survivor of a type of cancer, or someone diagnosed with a certain type of cancer.

According to sites discussing inclusive language guidelines, using inclusive language is not just intended to be used by mental health professionals, but also in businesses, marketing materials, social media platforms, websites and other forms of media and communication as we are addressing the importance of diversity and inclusiveness.

So, the correct term would no longer be that I am a breast cancer survivor or that my husband is a prostate cancer survivor, but that I am a survivor of breast cancer and my husband is a survivor of prostate cancer. The emphasis is on a person before labeling any disease or illness first.

This is similar to my work in the field of recovery. For several years now, it has not been acceptable or supportive to label someone as an “addict,” but rather to state that someone is in recovery from substance use or is perhaps struggling with substance use.

This may not seem like a big deal to some or feel trivial, but language matters in terms of how someone relates to their body, their life and their prognosis so they don’t feel stigmatized by an illness or injury. As human beings and individuals, we are more than cancer and language may unconsciously be impacting the way I or others feel about our bodies when experiencing a cancer journey.

If I were, for example, to begin saying “individuals who have experienced a cancer diagnosis,” it might just feel more empowering than saying lung cancer patient. We are seeing this language change when you read about events or topics such as childhood survivors of cancer verses childhood cancer survivors. The language use allows us to identify as an individual and not as cancer which may even unconsciously impact healing.

I am taking steps to honor diversity and inclusiveness. I will begin by working on language in my own community to include language I use in future articles, on my social media platforms and in my ads for yoga I provide for individuals diagnosed with cancer.

As I move forward in 2022, I am going to personally commit to using and practicing more inclusive language by correcting myself when I go to say cancer survivor and instead replace it with survivor of breast cancer, for example. So, if you read about my free online yoga programming, it is being updated to a description of yoga for those diagnosed with cancer, which is aimed at specific programming for individuals who have experienced a cancer diagnosis.

Does this have you thinking about how you might relate to or explain your own journey?

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