Using Your Words: Why Choosing Your Cancer Narrative is Important
Updated: May 20
In August 2016, a biopsy revealed that I had two tumors in my right breast: at 1 o'clock and at 2 o'clock. They were side-by-side and felt like one big lump rather than two smaller ones. Four days after my biopsy, I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. I ran my hand over those tumors almost every day, terrified and shocked. I told the breast surgeon, "I want these tumors, this cancer, OUT of my body. NOW." But surgery wouldn't come until much later. Phase one of my cancer treatment plan involved 8 cycles of chemotherapy spread out over 16 weeks. Cancer had taken up residence in my body and wasn't going anywhere anytime soon.
After I was diagnosed, I read articles online, scrolled through private Facebook support group feeds, talked to survivors and checked in with their caregivers. As I picked up on the language of breast cancer, most of what I found didn't resonate: "Fight Like A Girl" "Declare War on Cancer" "You Can Beat This" "Stay Strong". I appreciated why these phrases existed and how countless survivors relied on them for motivation and encouragement. But the battle metaphor didn't click with me. In a battle there are winners and there are losers. Those phrases implied that something I did or didn't do could cause me to "lose the battle." But even if I did everything my doctors asked me to, and submitted to all the invasive treatments they recommended, cancer could still win. Would that make me a loser?
A couple of weeks before my first round of chemo, I was still searching for the right words to explain how I wanted to experience cancer. How I was experiencing cancer. Was I overthinking this? Over time, I realized that as empowering as battle metaphors were for other survivors, they didn't resonate with me because cancer was in my body. Cancer was part of me, at least for a little while. I wasn't at war, or in a fight, with my own body. Instead, I lived with cancer. I acknowledged the cancer cells that had taken up residence in my breast, thanked them for coming and teaching me a few good life lessons and, during each chemo cycle, I then imagined myself kindly showing them the door. The words I used to tell my cancer story were mine. They made me laugh. When I felt defeated and worried, they comforted me. I couldn't control much during the 9 months between diagnosis and the end of treatment. But I could and would control my cancer narrative!
"As we have begun to talk more frankly, openly, and individually about cancer, the richness of the language, imagery, and concepts that can be used as tools for comprehending the experience expands." Does How We Talk About Cancer Matter, Anne Moyer Ph.D. psychologytoday.com
I eventually made peace with the cancer culture's more popular battle metaphors : "Fight Like a Girl", "Kick Cancer's A**" and "F*CKCANCER". They serve a purpose, such as drawing attention to and raising money for organizations like The American Cancer Society. We need to make room for alternative terminology, though, rather than rely on a single set of marketing sound bites to describe a complex disease that affects every survivor differently. If you've recently been diagnosed with cancer, are in the middle of treatment or are looking at cancer in the rear view mirror, ask yourself "What is my cancer story? What words do I want to use to tell it?"