November 8th, 2018
This month I was asked to appear in a segment on the ITV morning show Lorraine to discuss the language of cancer. Both the language around cancer and what to say to people that have been diagnosed. You can watch the piece on ITV’s website.
For me this was an exciting opportunity to raise awareness of an important issue. I am often dismayed by the language used in the media around cancer and am acutely aware of how awkward people feel about talking about it, especially to people who have been diagnosed. So, I was thrilled that ITV wanted to address it.
The language of cancer
The language of cancer was something I became aware of in November 2014 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 29. As a lover of words, I found the language people started using when talking to me interesting. I discovered I was now in a battle with cancer and one that everyone was sure I would win.
It didn’t sit comfortably with me. What if I lost? Would I have failed as I didn’t fight hard enough? I have no problem with people who do want to use that type of language, and of course it raises a lot of money. But for me, I worry it stops us having realistic conversations about cancer as I can assure you there is no fight to be had.
My ‘fight’ against cancer involved attending a series of appointments and it wasn’t my positive attitude that saw me make a full recovery. While I think it helped me maintain my sanity, it did not secure my survival. Cancer is a complicated disease. The reason I’m still here today is partially luck, and partially that I found it early.
I volunteer for the charity CoppaFeel! to raise awareness of breast cancer in young women and men, and we believe that early detection is the best form of defence. And my worry is that people aren’t looking for the early signs and symptoms because they believe if it does happen to them, they’ll just fight it, so bury their heads in the sand.
If caught early, many cancers can be very treatable, so it’s time it stopped being a taboo, and we start talking more openly about it. I wanted to say a big thank you for Lorraine and ITV for featuring this topic and to CoppaFeel! for putting me forward to talk about it.
What to say to someone diagnosed with cancer
It’s always difficult to know what to say when someone you care about has been diagnosed with cancer. This is what I found helpful:
- Say something. Even if it’s “I don’t know what to say”. It hurts far more when people don’t contact you or actively avoid you than someone who inadvertently says the wrong thing.
- Ask “How are you today” – generally they’re obviously not going to be ok, but within that will be days that are better or worse than others.
- Be specific – rather than say “let me know if there’s anything I can do to help” say “Shall I bring a pizza round tonight?” – it still gives the other person an option to say no, but you haven’t put the pressure on them to think of a way you can help.
- For me, I didn’t want people telling me I was going to be ok, or that I would fight it and win. – unless you’re a doctor you can’t possibly know (and even they can’t be sure). Let people talk about how they’re really feeling and be there to listen.
- It’s ok to laugh. Maintaining a sense of humour was a big part of the cancer experience for me.
I’m always happy to talk about my experience so feel free to ask me questions or chat to me next time you see me. And if you want to learn more about breast cancer and the signs and symptoms, visit CoppaFeel! or Breast Cancer Care’s websites.