Cancer lingo: How one person's thoughtful metaphor can be another's cliché


Cancer lingo: How one person's thoughtful metaphor can be another's cliché
  1. Cancer lingo: How one person's thoughtful metaphor can be another's cliché
    cbc.ca
    'He's a warrior. A real fighter.' These all-too-common battle metaphors are regularly aimed at people trying to get through a cancer diagnosis. While the words may be well-intentioned, doctors say they can often do more harm than…
    Health

In her cozy Toronto home, Claire Edmonds strums a few strings on her guitar and slips into her relax mode. It's part of her therapy, helping her to maintain good mental health.

Two years ago, a routine mammogram disrupted what was a peaceful life the 59-year-old shared with her husband and two daughters. The results of the test taken the day before revealed a suspicious tumour.

"I came home at nine o'clock that night. It was my birthday. My husband was sitting on the couch looking very pale."

The doctor had phoned: It was breast cancer.

Fatigue of fighting

What followed were several months of the standard treatment: Chemotherapy, radiation, surgery.

But then came a different kind of discomfort: the awkward language of cancer from well-meaning friends.

"Heroic. Hated that," Edmonds recalls. "Didn't feel heroic at all."

Other words fell short, too. "Courageous didn't work for me. It was a rare feeling."

Shutterstock - medium file

If you're not sure what to say to someone recently diagnosed with cancer, doctors suggest you take time to listen instead.

For Edmonds, that kind of language wasn't helpful — it was a burden.

"It's exhausting to be a battler," she says. "It's exhausting to deny the feelings of fear and anxiety and sadness and grief."

Warrior metaphors — or whatever you want to call those cancer clichés — have been around for some time. But the language was thrust back into the public spotlight after the recent brain cancer diagnosis of U.S. Senator John McCain. 

On Twitter, well-wishes — including former president Barack Obama — described the senator as a "brave fighter." On TV newscasts, reporters suggested that while McCain was in for a tough battle, his disease had a "worthy opponent."

Thoughtful metaphor vs. common cliché

"Most of us are not real fans of using these battle metaphors," says Dr. Elie Isenberg-Grzeda, a psychiatrist at Toronto's Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

He says he counsels his cancer patients on the impact their disease and their mental health can have on each other.

"On one side of the coin is, 'You're tough. You can beat this. You're a fighter. You're a strong warrior.' But the flip side of that is the person ends up dying from their cancer. And it means they weren't tough enough. They couldn't beat it. They weren't a fighter. They were actually a loser."  

Warrior metaphors prevent a person with cancer from being honest with friends and family, he says. And the result is loneliness and isolation. 

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"It's hard to talk about cancer without invoking metaphors," says Dr. Robert Maunder, a psychiatrist at Mount Sinai Hospital. "One person's thoughtful metaphor, is another person's cliché."

While battle metaphors can impose unfair expectations on a person with cancer, Maunder says other patients may actually find those words empowering.

"It is helpful to take your cues from the person with the disease," he says. "There are no perfect words or fail-safe metaphors. B…

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