“Cancer” is a terrifying word.
When you read “cancer” or hear it spoken, I’m sure the word summons an emotional and physical response. It’s sad. It’s destructive. It hits too close to home.
“Cancer,” yup. There’s that heavy feeling again.
You and I aren’t the only ones that feel this way about the word, the illness and what it evokes. Cancer and the dire consequences it offers are taboo to talk and write about. But, over the past several years, conversations about cancer have evolved, taken new forms and provided new pathways for tackling our collective fear surrounding everything cancerous.
THIS LIFE is a part of this conversation, as is its main character, Natalie Lawson, a strong-willed single-mother who lives with stage four renal cell carcinoma.
This conversation isn’t changing the subject on cancer, it’s completely recreating the way we talk and feel about it. We’re helping to build a new lexicon, a more impactful language on cancer.
As Story Coordinator of THIS LIFE, it was my job to dig in and research everything I could about the malady. Apart from the discomfort of the term and despite the fact that I ran into many people (including family and friends) who’d rather not talk about cancer, I found a few awesome people/places who’re replacing discomfort with empathy.
Susan Gubar is an author, professor and in-house cancer blogger for The New York Times. Her recent book, Memoir of a Debulked Woman, sheds light on her experiences as a woman living with ovarian cancer. In the book, she outs the odd and often problematic protocols in western medicine. She also deals with language in the realm of cancer.
In one blog post entitled “Living With Cancer: Coming to Terms,” Gubar writes about how language around cancer tends to blame people receiving care. “A patient said to have “failed tamoxifen” knows the drug has failed her,” is one of many examples Gubar presents.
But there’s a new wave of patient created terms that are starting to make the rounds in hospitals and support groups around the globe. Terms like “scanxiety”, “chemoflage”, “cancer schleper” have begun to replace blunt medical and cultural terminology.
Gubar also opened my eyes to the fertile world of cancer acronyms, including: PSHIFTY (Person Still Hanging In Fine Thank You) and QIBIFA (Quite Ill, But Inexplicably Fat Anyway).
These minute but significant word changes have indirectly altered wider conversations. In my research, I also came across what’re aptly called Death Cafes. The mandate of these Death Cafe held events are to have “[...] group directed discussions of death with no agenda, objectives or themes.”
Enjoy a nice coffee, tea and snack with a pleasant side of death talk with complete strangers. Death Cafes have been held in over 30 countries around the world and continue to take place in locations across Canada. Check your local listings…
Language, conversations and art about cancer, death and dying have shifted in our society. There’s probably no better evidence of this than in our country’s own hospitals. Montreal’s newly furnished super hospital, MUHC, now includes an avant-garde cancer center replete with giant skylights in treatment rooms, maze-like patient friendly layouts, and welcoming design.
In episode 8 of THIS LIFE, Natalie makes the tough decision to write about her experience living with cancer in her weekly column at The Express newspaper. One line’s always stuck with me:
“[...] The only thing you’ll find here is one woman performing the utterly unremarkable act of living to the end of her life.”
I think it completely encapsulates the shifting narrative of cancer outlined above -- one that puts the person living with cancer first. Is it still sad? Nobody’s arguing that “cancer” no longer has its linguistic potency but now, as Natalie so dignifyingly shows, cancer isn’t a boogy man, nor are the “cancer veterans” living with it.
Continue the conversation with us in all new episodes of THIS LIFE on CBC Television, Mondays at 9pm.