The way we talk about cancer is outdated. It was this headline
in a Vox article that caught my eye earlier this month. Wondering
what it meant, I clicked (so yes, sometimes the clickbait on Vox
works, quite effectively actually) and stumbled onto an article
that has real-life parallels for me.
My aunt has been sick--really sick--for about a year, with
unexplained gastrointestinal issues that have caused her to lose a
great deal of weight. Despite tests for nearly everything
(including various types of cancer), the doctors have been unable
to confirm a diagnosis.
After losing her husband (my uncle) to cancer, she is terrified
that she may also have what she considers to be a deadly disease.
When I heard this, my first reaction was this: "But we know how to
fight cancer. We have treatments that are incredibly effective.
Isn't having cancerbetterthan not knowing what is wrong?"
But in her world, cancer is a death sentence.
This way of thinking is not uncommon. Nearly everyone I know has
lost someone to cancer. It's a horrific disease that takes people
too young, causes people to suffer, and, as is the case with my
aunt, instills fear in all of us.
But, as the Vox headline suggests, despite all the pain, and
yes, death, that cancer causes, we should re-thing the way we talk
about cancer. And that means health communicators have some work to
do to help patients step outside of a world where one of two
scenarios prevail: complete cancer remission or death.
In fact, many people live with cancer as a chronic condition.
Since 1991, the
cancer death rate has declined by 23 percent. The reality for
most patients with cancer is that the disease is never truly gone
(perhaps recurring from time to time) but it's also not killing
them. Nevertheless, many people, including
politicians such as Joe Biden, are frequently vowing to "cure"
cancer, a notion with which some don't necessarily agree.
Siddhartha Mukherjee, a physician, scientist, and author of "
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer," for
example, says that cancer is far too complex for a single "silver
bullet" that cures all types of cancers. Mukherjee says that "To
imagine that we will find a simple solution to this doesn't do
service to the true complexity of the problem."
What does this mean? There has been so much time and energy
spent on "finding a cure" for cancer, and it is exceedingly
difficult to change rhetoric about any topic, let alone one that
carries such emotional baggage.
But maybe, if we starttalkingabout people living with
cancer--not just talking about people who are dying from cancer or
not just talking about people who are celebrating that their cancer
has been cured--we can start to change the way wethinkabout
Patients shouldn't be afraid to use the "C" word. And they
shouldn't feel as if they have to keep their diagnosis a
That doesn't mean we stop hoping for a cure for cancer. It just
means that when cancer is not cured, we don't hide it. We talk
about it. And we learn from it.
A version of this post appeared at
HealthComU on March 14, 2015.
[BL1]Will provide a link once
I have it.