The Language of Cancer

Words exist for meaning, but once you understand the meaning you can throw away the words.
(Chuang-txu, 4th century Taoist sage / from Humphrey, N., Understanding Meditation, London, Thorsons, p. 23)

Two years ago whilst living in Malaysia, I was listening to a BBC radio programme on my way to work when I heard a story about Andrew Graystone, a British writer and presenter. He, diagnosed with prostate cancer, had decided that the usual rhetoric associated with the disease just didn’t sit well with him. According to Graystone, “The language of war dominates cancer discourse, so whether we want to fight or not, people with cancer are conscripted into a battle against the self. Our bodies made into war zones, with cancer as the enemy, medical professionals as infallible heroes, and treatments of search-and-destroy by any means possible” (“The Rhetoric of Cancer”, BBC World Service: The Documentary,

This approach intrigued me, especially since I, like so many others before me, had embraced the words, “battle” and “fight”in my own C journey. Here, however, was someone who, faced with the disease, had taken a very different approach to naming the who, what and how of tackling the condition. It reminded me of the political correctness furore of the past with its discussions around language and gender bias. I decided that when I was ready, I needed to explore this further.

Graystone’s “beef” is that the militaristic language used to identify and treat cancer is largely for the benefit of fundraising. It elicits support from those who have cancer and want it gone, as well as those who want researchers to find a way to stop themselves or others from ever getting it in the first place. Granted, cancer is big business that involves a veritable “army” of personnel, and money is required to continue turning the wheels of this gigantic universal machine. Consequently, to frame it in terms of battle, especially one that has the potential to touch anyone and everyone, creates an effective hook to engender support. At the same time though, the spin-off is huge profit for the treatment providers and drug companies which brings into play ethical considerations, but that’s another story…

The thing about cancer though is that it is a uniquely personal experience for anyone afflicted. Everyone reacts to it differently. For Graystone, making it the enemy was counter-productive to how he wanted to represent it and himself aligned with it. He believes that this objectification of cancer ultimately stems from our human need to try and make sense of something we don’t understand or can’t control, much the same as the stories created by ancient civilisations to explain the mechanics of day and night. Cancer thus becomes “the alien invader. We treat it as a beast, a parasite. We give it a godlike or demonic status. We fear it…Then we curse it or we pray to it for mercy. In all of this we externalise it. We make it separate from us” (“The Cancer Bonus Tour: The War on Cancer – Reflections from a Conscientious Objector”, January 11, 2017, //

Cancer, however, isn’t separate from us, stemming instead from a sudden mutation of our own cells. It is a decision they make to go rogue and turn against the body, wreak havoc and override normal healthy immune function. Dealing with this “mutiny” does require strength, courage, faith and resilience but rather than defining it in antagonistic, military terms, it may pay to frame the journey in other ways. Anya Krugovoy Silver, a poet who defines herself as thriving with breast cancer says, “I don’t want to think of myself as constantly in a state of fighting my own body. I live with this disease. There are cancer cells in my body. We live in equanimity as much as we can. I don’t want to live my life in that panic state that the word “battle” implies (“Cancer Rhetoric: the Illusion of Control”, Atticus Review, Posted August 1, 2016, accessed March 14, 2017,

When I was first diagnosed and underwent surgery, chemo and radio, I did see myself in a fight to save my life even though I was ironically engaging in a battle against my own body. Would I have framed it differently if I knew then what I know now? Perhaps but as I mentioned previously, cancer is a uniquely personal experience. At the time, to survive through and beyond it, I needed to draw on the strength of my inner resolve. I had to fight. As my journey has progressed though, my language has changed to reflect a concerted focus on health and wellbeing. I treat my body differently, knowing that it has been host to cancer and try to work everyday in synergy with my cells. It’s a learning curve as rich and as complex as the words we use to define our experience. My aim then is to make language work to my advantage, not to my detriment.

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Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway (Susan Jeffers)

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