Laura Lee: Cancer means choosing your words very carefully

Cancer can be a difficult subject to talk about, but by taking care over the language we use and really listening to the person with cancer, we can create a positive and meaningful dialogue.

Maggis dont let people feel that it is cancer that defines them

And while it can be hard for a person with cancer to find the right words to describe their experience, it can be a tricky for others as well.

What should we say to a friend who’s just been told they have cancer, or to someone who may be facing up to the loss of a loved-one? Will certain words or subjects make them feel better or upset them?

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When faced with such a daunting subject as cancer, we can find ourselves resorting to cliché. Cancer has acquired its own language over the years, with combative words like “fight”, “battle” and “survivor” commonly used in the media, and subsequently adopted into our vocabulary.

Which is why, thanks to players of People’s Postcode Lottery, author and former Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis has helped devise a workshop for Maggie’s for anyone living with cancer who would like to explore ideas around positive and negative words, the role they play in an experience of cancer and how writing can help people come to terms with the emotions involved in a cancer diagnosis.

At the pilot in Maggie’s West London Centre participants were invited to share their thoughts on the language habitually used when speaking about cancer.

It illustrated perfectly how the language of cancer can be less than helpful to those who are actually experiencing the disease. While the group admitted understanding that some people can find combative terminology motivational or inspiring, they were in complete agreement that the word “brave” when used, particularly in the media, to describe people with cancer sometimes made them feel inadequate.

“Brave” and similar words can feel disempowering to people simply trying to get through one day a time.

On the other hand, we’ve all heard about the power of positive thinking.

Most of us, at some point, have probably been told by well meaning people to ‘stay positive’, ‘avoid negativity’. But people living with cancer can be weary of this kind of language.

At Maggie’s we are careful not to use any overtly emotive or strong language around cancer, and because we don’t want people to feel that cancer defines them as a person, we talk about the people who come into our Centres simply as ‘people with cancer’ or ‘Centre visitors’, rather than cancer patients.

And to anyone who is living with cancer, I would say, please remember that this is your experience, no one can tell you how you should or shouldn’t feel or how to express yourself.

All I can say is to accept 
all of the support you can, 
be it from friends and family or organisations like Maggie’s.

To view a film of the Janet Ellis pilot workshop, sponsored by players of People’s Postcode Lottery and now being rolled out across the UK, please follow this link:
Laura Lee is chief executive at Maggie’s