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Cancer Isn't Voldemort — Here's Why I'm Encouraging You to 'Say the Word'

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I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to say certain words or steer clear of certain topics. These are my personal feelings about talking about illness — which also change periodically depending on my own ability to cope.

The other day, someone wrote to me about a scene in a TV show and mentioned that it was about “you know… the… you know… can*er.” They tried to censor uncomfortable words sometimes to prevent me from getting upset. But first of all, that wasn’t really censoring because I know exactly what they mean — if I was going to be triggered, that would have the same effect as using the word “cancer.” Secondly, after years of being in the cancer world as a caregiver multiple times as well as being a person with other illnesses myself, I am not scared of words anymore. On the contrary, I often want to scream them loudly to anyone who will listen. In fact, I wish that my own family had not been so scared of certain words because then they might have been able to have more effective conversations with me that would have helped me prepare for life and not feel shame about my illnesses.

I personally find that using full, uncensored words for illnesses and not beating around the bush makes things a lot simpler. This has not always been well received, though. When I tell people who ask me how I’m doing, “We’re doing all right, but things are hard with my mother’s cancer at the moment,” they are often taken aback and don’t know how to respond. I don’t mind that.

Sometimes when people say something a little scary to me, I also need a few moments to process and figure out something appropriate to say back. What I do mind a little bit, though, is that people may be scared to continue talking to me or possibly to even keep in touch because they might be scared to talk about cancer or may worry that I mention it too much. They may not want to say the word “cancer,” so they often timidly ask, “Is your mom… you know… still not feeling well?” or “Your mom is feeling OK now, right?”

Honestly, sometimes I want to respond “No, she has cancer, and she will always have cancer. But hopefully next week, she will feel a little better than she did this week”. I don’t want to skirt around the word “cancer” — I want to say it until it doesn’t bother me or the people around me anymore. Not using the word “cancer” makes me feel like I’m lying and it gives it so much more power than it needs to have.

I always think of this in terms of Voldemort from “Harry Potter:” “He Who Must Not Be Named.” Sometimes in conversations, I feel like the other person might be about to mention the illness — but then may remember that it “must not be named” because it is so “bad.” Then find another way to say “cancer.” However, in “Harry Potter,” the characters realized that not naming Voldemort gave him more power. I feel like it’s the exact same way with not naming my mother’s cancer.

“Cancer” can be an extremely loaded term. It can have so many emotions attached to it for each person it touches — and it is kind of like Voldemort in some ways. Until cancer suddenly affected almost my whole family, I wouldn’t know how to respond to the word “cancer” either, but now I see that this skittishness contributed to my overall anxiety. I felt like I had to stop saying “cancer” and keep my mother’s illness a secret.

I am still triggered by the word “cancer.” If I see a video or a post or a scene in a movie, and there is a cancer storyline, I will have a breakdown and need to turn it off more often than not. But I’m not angry at anyone for saying “cancer” out loud — I am glad they do. Those are just my reactions, and I am aware of them and do not dismiss them. I’d rather have to go and hide for a few hours than not have any cancer storylines at all.

It’s not just cancer, though. Many physical and mental health conditions are still spoken about in hushed terms. I still can’t talk openly and honestly about most of my illnesses with family or friends. I hope I will be able to one day, and people won’t feel the need to censor medical terms anymore. Telling the truth and explaining conditions using science and medical language is empowering. I want to tell people they don’t need to be scared of condition names. They are just words — important words. They can help us communicate how we feel and why we feel it. I feel like saying health condition names is necessary.

I will always respect someone who tells me they do not want to talk about a certain illness because it’s triggering. I understand that, and if that’s what makes you feel comfortable, please let me know. But when someone talks to me or wants to know how I’m doing, I’d love for them to just say the word “cancer” and let me say it out loud too.

Getty image by Gabriela Osinska / EyeEm.

Originally published: June 22, 2022
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