Cancer is big. If there is one thing that we can all agree on, it is that cancer is massive. When you first hear the words, it upends your life in a second. And then, it starts affecting the people around you, your friends, your support network, your family, people you had not thought about. And what I have come to realise is that we all have one thing in common: we struggle to find the right words to address cancer, and discuss it.
Does it come from a place of fear? The word ‘cancer’ itself is unnerving. A couple of years ago, I told off my older brother, who had started using the phrase ‘c’est cancer’ (‘it’s cancer’) to say ‘that sucks’. He had picked it up from some French gamer on Twitch, and was using it so much it drove me crazy, and not just because it is grammatically incorrect. I told him it made me uncomfortable, and I think that was because of the power I gave that word. In my mind, ‘cancer’ had always represented something horrendous, something so severe that the word itself made me feel scared.
I have now come to terms with it. I can say the word without feeling anything, without feeling scared or crying. It is everything else that I struggle with.
There is no right way to talk about cancer. There are no right words, because they all feel wrong. They feel like they should not have been uttered. They feel private, they feel hurtful, they feel dangerous.
From the moment you decide to talk to people about your condition, you have to be careful what words to use. How to even start the conversation. I think every time I told someone, I started with some version of ‘I just wanted to share something with you – I have had some bad news. I was at the hospital the other day and […]’. I felt like that was a good start. It prepares your audience for what is to come. It is not as abrupt as coming out and saying ‘I have cancer’ straightaway. By making it into a story, with an introduction, by setting the tone and narrating it like a tale, it almost made me feel like I had it together. It was a story, it had a beginning and a clear narrative structure. And when the word ‘cancer’ appeared, whoever I was talking to was not taken aback. I had led them there, and made their experience more peaceful than my own.
When talking about what happened to me, I am so careful about the words I use, the sentences I write. Consciously or not, I make a choice every time I talk about cancer. Just take the first sentence of this paragraph. ‘What happened to me’. That was a deliberate choice. Making it sound like something that came upon me, diluting the message by using a vague concept. It does not sound as real as ‘when talking about cancer’, does it? And it puts me in a passive role, a spectator to my own life. Just think about how long it takes me to write these blogs if I think about each word for that long.
I have always tried to find the right balance between melodrama and a cautious indifference. Depending on who I was talking to, I would adapt the way I spoke about cancer. I would speak about it freely with a couple of friends. I would tone it down for people at work, stressing that it was probably ‘very early-stage cancer’, even before I knew that for sure. I spoke about ‘treatment’ at length, without going into the details. I barely ever uttered the words ‘chemo’ and ‘radiotherapy’, even when I was discussing potential post-surgery treatment. I did not find comfort in the medical terms. Hysterectomy, FIGO stage, adjuvant therapy. They always felt cold, almost too severe for me. I am not a medical professional. If I had not been personally affected by cancer, I probably would not have used these words. By not using them, I was hiding from their reality, and it helped me cope for a while.
I also struggle with tenses. It does not feel like much, but I freeze every time I want to say ‘I had cancer’. Should I say ‘I have cancer’? Should I say ‘I have had cancer’? None of them feel right, and all of them feel right at the same time. I am not out of the woods yet, but I also do not technically still have cancer… Or do I? In my previous article, I typed the word ‘remission’, and only then did I notice that I had completely banished it from my vocabulary. It is an ugly word. It is a word that denotes the limbo I currently live in. Neither ill nor cured. Cancer might still be here, in my body, dormant and menacing, quiet and deceiving. I will try and use ‘remission’ more going forward, because it is the word that defines me best. I will get used to it, I promise.
There are other words that come to mind. I already spoke about the duality of the word ‘strong’, and how uncomfortable it makes me feel. ‘Cured’ is another one of those. ‘Lucky’. ‘Depression’. The list goes on. But there are also words that make me happy (ok, they are mostly the names of baby animals, I will never say no to a discussion about meerkittens and otter whelps).
It is true not just for me, but also for people I talk to every day. I am going to go out on a limb here, and say that I do not think that anyone (apart from health professionals) has said the word ‘cancer’ to me in at least six months, at least in reference to me. And I have discussed it with plenty of people. I have used it myself. I speak to a few of my friends about it directly at least once a week. Is the word taboo? Do people avoid saying it because they are afraid of it, or afraid of how I will react? I will say it here – you can say cancer to me. You can even say it three times in a the mirror – I promise I will not come and haunt you.
People are so careful around cancer patients, worried about saying the wrong thing. But just so you know, there is no need to tread on eggshells around me. You can say anything you want. I have lived through it, there is nothing you can say that will shock me, that will trigger a reaction in me that I do not already trigger in myself twice a day.
Words are a big part of this, but talking about cancer goes beyond just that. It is an uncomfortable topic in general. I will see you at the weekend for a blog about how to make light of cancer – because we all need it sometimes.