Conversations about cancer: a guide to compassionate communication

Old painting depicting a historical battle

Can military type language have a negative impact on those who are living with cancer?

The language of cancer – can military metaphors have a negative impact on those who are living with cancer?

Read Cancer Coach Caroline Beckett’s informative and insightful blog to find out why cancer is a disease not a military operation.

It is noticeable that in the UK, the language used around the topic of cancer by medical professionals, friends and family, features metaphors.

In particular, the combat metaphor, will be familiar, as people living with cancer are often described as “fighting” or “winning the battle” or being a “cancer warrior.”

If you are a patient, you may have been told that you are brave for “soldiering on” or that the medics are bringing out “big gun chemo.”  Some patients explain that the literature about cancer provided by hospitals uses this language of violence at a time when people often feel vulnerable, and that this can be counterproductive.

To dismantle the stigma surrounding cancer, we must confront misconceptions and dispel blame. No one is culpable for their illness, and attributing fault only exacerbates feelings of guilt and self-blame.

Does “defeated” mean you didn’t “battle” hard enough against cancer?

While some people find the military language motivational, many cancer patients share that they dislike this terminology because if they “lose the battle”, it feels like there is a critical tone. Patients may feel judged or as though they have failed because they didn’t try hard enough to “fight”.

Patients may also feel a lack of power within these metaphors of violence as they are “victims” without the power of the right “weapons” to fight, and medics can be seen as the all-powerful “generals” or “commanders” who design the “battle plan”.

Many patients feel that they have no choice and are inadvertently involved with a “fight” that they don’t want to be in, and which was not of their making.  One patient stated that the use of such language demonstrates a “profound misunderstanding of how we can effectively treat the illness.”

Two women professionals having a serious conversation

Listen carefully to the language used by your friend, family or colleague undergoing treatment for cancer, and take their lead.

What can we do to be more sensitive in our use of language around the emotive issue of cancer?

Engaging in conversations about cancer requires utmost sensitivity, recognising the unique experiences and preferences of each person affected.

  • Listen carefully to the language used by your friend, family or colleague undergoing treatment for cancer, and take their lead. They may well have their own metaphor, which works better for their experiences, as one patient said, “My cancer, my words.”
  • Consider how you phrase your sentences. Putting the person first, rather than the disease, can be more empowering. For example, “a person with cancer” places the focus on the patient and sustains the identity of your friend, colleague or family member.  This is in contrast to placing the disease first, i.e. “cancer patient” or “cancer survivor.”
  • Be mindful that cancer is a complicated disease and using verbs like “winning” or “losing” risks oversimplifying the complexity of it.
  • Be aware of the words and phrases that you use, even if they are well-meant. Encouraging patients to “stay positive” might make them feel guilty, when they are anxious or scared.
  • Acknowledging their fears and uncertainties validates their reality while offering a compassionate presence.
  • Don’t feel that you have to have the right words, just be honest. “I don’t know what to say, but I’m here for you,” is supportive and can let a person with cancer know they are not alone.

Learn how to communicate about cancer with Cancer Support UK’s workplace cancer support training courses.

Communicating with someone facing cancer requires humility, empathy, and a willingness to listen. By honoring their experiences, respecting their choices, and advocating for understanding, we can foster a culture of compassion and support in the face of adversity.