Lisa Adams And The Victimology Of Cancer

words Yes, another Kellergate post today. No apologies for those who have heard enough at this stage, for despite what the Kellers may lead you to believe, you don’t have to read my ramblings on cancer, unless you want to. For those that do want to hear more, then read on and please do share your thoughts in the comment box below.

There are several issues to discuss in the now infamous articles on Lisa Adams. To borrow a phrase from blogger Renn, it has been a blessing and a blunder, because it has provoked a debate in the media that needed to be aired.  One of those issues is the language of cancer, and specifically, the need for more sensitivity on how it is reported in the media.  Those of us who have experience of cancer have written and spoken about this time and time again, but the message still isn’t getting through.  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 Lisa Adams was referred to as alternately as a victim and  a cage-fighter, demonstrating yet again, how the  words used to describe living with cancer are still infected with connotations of battle and suffering. In an excellent publication by Dr Kristen Garrison of the Midwestern State University, she writes that “the language of war dominates breast cancer discourse, pervading every aspect of the experience, and determining how the patient and others understand the illness.”

Women are enlisted in a battle against the self, their bodies made war zones, with cancer as the enemy, medical professionals as infallible heroes, and treatments of search-and-destroy by any means possible. While this metaphor may serve to motivate some women, we should not accept it uncritically as the only and right way to make sense of this disease; furthermore, we should recognize how the war metaphor delimits the ways women can talk about breast cancer, potentially silencing women for whom a combat mode is inappropriate or ineffective.

And how does a warrior fare in a battle? Either they emerge triumph, or they lose their fight. When applied to cancer this assumes that death is somehow a failure on the part of the patient.   Back in May 2012, British journalist and broadcaster, Jenni Murray wrote about the bellicose language used to report cancer stories:

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.

Many of her readers agreed.

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?

Oncologist Dr Don Dizon writing around the same time in ASCO Connection told  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.”

So once again, a plea to journalists, reporters and anyone else who writes about cancer, its patients and its aftermath:

Please Mind Your Language – Words Matter!