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Please Avoid These Words When Talking About My Mom's Breast Cancer Diagnosis

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“This is a battle.”

“You can beat this.”

“You are a survivor.”

“You’ll win the fight.”

These are all words that were used when my mom first got sick with breast cancer in 2009. These are words I myself used during her illness. I happily referred to my mom as a breast cancer “survivor” for the last nine years. I never gave the language I was using a second thought.

Until recently. My mom’s breast cancer has returned, and it’s found its way into her lungs and bones. It is stage IV metastatic breast cancer, a disease for which there is no cure. This time around, the “battle” cannot be won by her.

I’ve listened as her friends and my own tell me they know she is strong and she can win the fight. That she will be a survivor once again. Our friends have the best of intentions, but this time around, this isn’t correct.  In fact, hearing people say they know she is strong and she can win this actually causes a hurt inside of me that I cannot explain. Those words can bring about a profound sadness and anger as my mom faces her illness.

I want to have a conversation about the terminology we use because I have learned a lot since my mom’s diagnosis. Terms like “fight,’” “battle” and “survivor” are commonly found in the media, fundraising campaigns and regular conversations about cancer. They are meant to inspire strength and courage. They are generally well-intended and well-meaning. That being said, these terms can cause doubt, shame and discouragement among those who have had a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime and their families.

My mom is no less strong because she won’t “survive” her illness. She is no less brave. She is no less compliant in her treatment plan. She is doing her best. But she will not become a “survivor.” In fact, since her initial illness in 2009, she has told me she will not associate herself with the word survivor unless she dies from something other than cancer.

Next time you’re faced with a conversation about this terrible disease, think twice about your language choices. Can the person really “beat” the disease? Will they truly be a “survivor”? Does the person fear tempting fate of a recurrence of the disease if they call themselves a “survivor”? What words is the person using to describe their own experience with their illness?

It is time to rethink these common terms as you may be unintentionally harming those with cancer diagnoses or their families. We can use other words and change our vocabulary surrounding this disease to be more inclusive of personal preferences, fears and facts. We can state the person had cancer in the past or the person’s cancer is in remission. We can wish the person luck with their treatment. We can use our words to help those around us be more comfortable, so why don’t we start doing just that?

Getty Image by Doucefleur

Originally published: September 16, 2019
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