The language of cancer is becoming more human – guest blog by Tony Linkson

Cancer is a scary word. Until the end of the 1960’s it was almost unmentionable, as though the word were malign in its own right. The ‘Big C’was shrouded in secrecy, and talk of the disease was avoided to the extent that it was common for cancer patients to be ‘protected’by doctors and family members from the knowledge that they, themselves, had it.


Then in 1971 President Nixon declared an American ‘War on Cancer’when he signed the National Cancer Act. From that point, the secrecy around cancer was gradually replaced by the language of war, and military metaphors became embedded in the culture. Over forty years on, cancer-related deaths of public figures are still invariably reported as a lost ‘fight against’or ‘battle with’cancer.

Like the subsequent ‘War on Drugs’ and the ‘War on Terror’, all-out war declared at government level on a nebulous, complex series of factors (cancer is many different diseases, not a single, monstrous entity) inevitably seems to lead to us fighting a losing battle, with ordinary people becoming victims somewhere along the line.

The military metaphors dramatise cancer in a petrifying way; patients fought to death by a malicious force. Whilst some respond to taking on the ‘fight’– because it helps them summon determination –the flip side is that it can makes losers and war-victims of the people who die as a result of their cancer, leading to feelings of failure and guilt among terminally ill patients.

Cancer was a secret, then it became a terrifying enemy. The ultimate effects of both is isolation for patients and their families. There’s lots of research to demonstrate that the mental health of people thrives when social, and deteriorates when isolated. And the worse people feel, the more isolated they tend to become –a negative spiral.

Many cancers are effectively treatable if detected early, so beyond fund-raising for research, it’s pragmatic, preventative action that can be genuinely empowering and involving. Self-checking testicles and breasts for lumps and other symptoms is something within our power, but we need to be educated about what to do and when. Crucially, the public’s collective fear-level must be low enough that engagement is possible.

Thankfully, the language around cancer is changing, and what is being mobilised now is our humanity, and that comes in two forms; camaraderieand humour.

Men are notoriously bad at tending to their health. Movember was created ten years ago, in Australia, to address this. It’s become a worldwide movement and it uses style and humour to inspire and educate people about male cancers.

Check One Two (#feelingnuts) is a movement created in the UK this year to raise awareness for testicular cancer. It does a great job (with things like knackatorials) to educate in a lighthearted and humorous way. The feelingnuts hashtag is so popular that Channel 4 organised a night of comedy around it last month, a continuation of its ‘Standup to Cancer’campaign a couple of weeks earlier.


Cancer Research UK’s Race for Life’ is a series of women-only fundraising runs. This campaign gives voice to the feelings people have about cancer –their grief, loss, struggle, resolve –and it does so with a refreshing tone of voice that mixes defiance with humour. We see how cancer is a part of all our lives, directly or indirectly.

These campaigns and movements are dramatised as a fight (we are still embroiled in a ‘war’with the evil, overarching enemy) but not one whereby the people who die are losers. Instead, the overriding message is that we fight together, win together, and we lose together. Not governments, not faceless scientists. Us –The People. In the face of this kind of collective strength, cancer has been repositioned as a disease on the back foot. But we need to go further.

In reality, once diagnosed, there’s very little an individual can actually do to ‘fight’cancer. It’s the medical profession and science that fights (or investigates, explores, uproots,cajoles –what are the alternatives to military metaphors?) on our behalf. When an individual’s cancer is detected early and/or eradicated, that’s a great thing. Often, though, cancer leads to death, and there is no shame in dying of cancer. Sometimes there’s just nothing else we can do.

Whilst we can hope for cure, for now cancer is part of life, and the healthiest thing we can do is talk about it. But when someone is terminally ill, fighting-talk becomes redundant, harmful and limiting, even. What we need is a broader vocabulary (Macmillan exemplify communications that needs to become part of wider culture); a language within the media that normalises kindness, vulnerability, acceptance, love, and emotional support. This isn’t the cure for cancer, but it is the cure for suffering in isolation.



About the Author

Tony Linkson is a very smart guy. He is a brand consultant, writer and Psychotherapist from London.

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