Our Cancer Lexicon


I believe that the language we use to describe the human experience shapes our perceptions of that experience as much as we shape the language itself. One of the areas in which I find the use of language quite disturbing is when we talk about cancer.

As an example, Jack Layton’s death from cancer was much talked about in Canadian media. The CBC ran an obituary entitled ‘Jack Layton’s legacy as a fighter’.

When he announced his diagnosis to the media Jack Layton himself said ‘I’m going to fight this cancer now so I can be back to fight for families when Parliament resumes.’

Now granted, my first-person experience with cancer was a long time ago. I had a total of 10 months of aggressive chemotherapy with surgery falling somewhere in the middle. Despite the passage time, one thing I am certain of is that the experience never felt like a battle, a fight, a war, a slugfest…. You get the idea. What I do remember is that when you get a diagnosis of cancer you are immediately swept into this torrent of events over which you have no sense of control, particularly as a child. In my case, the pathologists needed to argue over what type of bone cancer I had which meant there was a brief interlude between diagnosis and onset of treatment. During this time I can remember thinking about how my hair would fall out: one of the ironies of having cancer as a child is that you have no frame of reference for how bad the treatment is really going to be.

I do not remember anyone asking me if I wanted to pursue treatment. As a child, it was not my decision to make. Perhaps my parents were asked but it is one of those decisions around which you have little choice if you hope for your child to survive the illness.

In the case of a battle or fight or war at least one player has a choice about whether or not to pursue conflict. In the case of cancer, it is not like the cancer is making some sort of decision. And as the person it affects you are at the mercy of the disease in terms of the choices you have available.

Also, in the case of conflict I imagine there is an adrenaline rush, the sense that you are taking up some significant challenge or meeting a foe head on. I can tell you, I never felt like that. There was no rush. There was a sense of powerlessness. There were the tears on the days that I had to go to the hospital to be injected up with chemotherapeutics. I remember the nurses coming into my room in full isolation garb with the next bag of chemotherapy to be hooked up to the IV pump. Does that sound like a battle, or a fight, or a war, to anyone?

 © Cathie Coward

I think one of the major repercussions of the way we talk about cancer being a fight is that it implies that there are winners and losers. It suggests that on some level, if you die from cancer somehow the cancer has ‘won’ and you have ‘lost’ the battle. It ignores the fact that when you die the cancer also dies. It also implies that those who die of cancer do not fight as hard or as bravely or as fearlessly as those who survive.

If the experience of having cancer is to be viewed as a battle then the person with it is merely the landscape – that’s the best analogy that I have been able to come up with. On one side you’ve got the doctors, and their arsenal of drugs and treatments and symptom relievers and other modalities, while on the other side is the cancer. And the person with the disease is the landscape on which the battle goes down. The best you can hope for is that the landscape comes out the other side reasonably unscathed. And that after time to heal and rest it starts to look like what it used to. Regardless, the remnants of the battle remain and in many instances the repercussions of the fight that was waged become part of the landscape. And then there are the unfortunate instances where the landscape never recovers. But really the landscape has very little to say in the outcome and can only hope to see the other side of the fight.

The “D” Word

At the age of eleven I was diagnosed with bone cancer. Treatment required a surgeon cut off part of my left leg. I’ve grown up wearing prosthetics, and today, at 31, they’ve become part of my normal. Yet in spite of this lengthy period of adjustment, I still choke on the word ‘disability’.

I avoid uttering the phrase ‘I am disabled’. I do not like attaching the “D” Word to myself. If necessary, I try to be careful to say that ‘I have a disability’. I’m prepared to to acknowledge that I have a disability, but I am very resistant to the idea that it is central to my person.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the prefix ‘dis-‘ as ‘denoting reversal or absence of an action or state’. It defines ability as ‘possession of the means or skill to do something’. The World Health Organization’s definition almost makes me gag: ‘Disabilities is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations.’ I’m left with this sense of being discredited and dehumanized as a result of a physical trait that I cannot change.

My problem with the “D” word is the emphasis – it creates identity through that which is not. This conflicts directly with the way I approach living. I look around and see endless possibilities.

Yes, many things require persistence and a bit of brainstorming, but usually I feel more limited by perceptions of my prosthetic, and my fear that it will be perceived as a weakness or a fault, than by the prosthetic itself.

None of the accepted synonyms are any better. My good friend Malcolm Daly likes the word ‘gimp’. In fact, he often refers to ‘gimps’ and ‘normals’. I must admit, I was initially uncomfortable with the idea of being a ‘gimp’ but I have come to prefer the word to ‘disabled’. However, I think it is unlikely that ‘gimp’ will enter into common usage in the English language.

Let’s face it, saying ‘there is a physical part of me that deviates from what society defines narrowly as normal’ is a bit of a mouthful, and I have not been able to come up with a decent alternative to the word ‘disability’.

The “D” word, and to whom it applies, needs to be reconsidered. Let’s start that process now.