Why Words Matter

Did Robin Gibb lose his battle with cancer?

Last week on their blogs, both AnneMarie and Lori wrote about the power of words and indeed this is a subject I have written about myself in the past.  I believe it is important that we raise awareness of the need for more sensitivity to how words, phrases and labels matter, but despite our raising our voices, it seems this message still isn’t getting through.

In a recent newspaper article by British journalist and broadcaster, Jenni Murray, she bemoans the bellicose language used to announce Bee Gee, Robin Gibb’s death.

It was sad to hear of his death. But at the same time it is infuriating to read and hear, over and over.. that he “has lost his battle with cancer..I’m at a loss to know why, despite a number of us who’ve been through the dread diagnosis and subsequent treatment pointing out that such pugilistic terminology is entirely inappropriate, we continue to be given the impression that death from cancer is somehow an indication of failure to have the moral fibre to fight and defeat it.

Jenni Murray was diagnosed with breast cancer a few years ago and goes on to say, “supposing I’d crowed about my “victory” or put my survival down to the power of positive thought. What impact would that have had on the young women who had a more virulent strain and knew they were dying? ”

It was interesting to read the comments from readers, many of whom agreed with Murray. (although inevitably there were those who disagreed vehemently).

Mightyatom9 writes:

Whenever cancer is mentioned in the media, I know, with a sinking heart, that the words battle, fight and being positive cannot be far behind. Cancer is an illness, not a military campaign – some people get better, others do not.

For me, the expectation that I should always be positive was a terrible burden.  I felt guilty and inadequate that I couldn’t be brave and I used to think, if the cancer came back, people would blame me because  I hadn’t been positive enough.  Can I really be the only person to have felt this way? I must be, if all I read and hear in the media are anything to go by.

No-one is more surprised than I that I am still here 13 years after being treated for a very aggressive Stage II cancer.  I take no credit for it – my survival is down to my good fortune and superb medical care

And kmlydon makes the point

Jenni Murray’s piece says something that desperately needs saying.  The “battle with cancer” may be “only a metaphor” but it stands for a quite destructive attitude that, to the extent it influences doctors as well, distorts the treatment of cancer too. A much better way to conceptualize cancer is to speak of “living with it,” for as well and as long as one can…why don’t we all agree to say that a person died after living with cancer for X amount of time?

Dr Don Dizon writing this week in ASCO Connection,  the professional networking site for ASCO’s worldwide oncology community told us how he has become more ” sensitive to words and phrases, particularly when they are used in reference to patients, treatment, and circumstances surrounding recurrent disease…we as an oncology community must commit to a concerted effort to monitor the language of oncology. Words are powerful, and despite our best intentions, can hurt—this is true in life, and it is true in oncology.”

Words matter – do you agree?