I wrote about how we talk about cancer previously in my blog: She died after losing her battle with cancer…
And I see it’s been in the news again recently.
Evidence suggests that the words we use can land very differently with different people.
Some people find words such as ‘fight’, ‘struggle’, ‘warrior’ and ‘battle’ motivating, whilst for others they will have precisely the opposite effect.
One of the articles I read recently quoted Karen Roberts, Chief Nursing Officer at Macmillan Cancer Support, who said:
“These results show just how divisive and ‘Marmite’ simple words and descriptions can be.
Cancer throws all kinds of things your way, and struggling to find the words, and the emotional turmoil caused when our friends and family don’t get it ‘right’ only makes lives feel even more upended.
By drawing attention to this we want to encourage more people to talk about the words they prefer to hear, and stop the damage that can be caused to people’s wellbeing and relationships.”
The article also quotes Craig Toley (diagnosed with thyroid cancer and now in remission) and Mandy Mahoney (who has incurable metastatic breast cancer) – who each respond very differently to the language used.
I know, from the work I’ve done with people who have been diagnosed, and their friends and families, just how much the words we use can matter – and that there is no one word or phrase that will land well with everyone.
In an emotionally-charged state when we are each trying to make sense of events and formulate our own meaning, we can so easily react badly to what we perceive to be a poor choice of words by someone else.
This is especially true, I think, if (perhaps because of who they are to us) we expect more of that person than we do of others in terms of understanding us or our situation, showing us how they feel, or keeping their own emotions in check whilst we process our own – so much so that everyone involved can feel like they’re navigating a minefield…
We are each individuals and what feels right for me will not necessarily be the same for you.
My thoughts and feelings about the situation may be very different from yours.
Words may also land differently depending on how, when and where we’re talking.
Talking on the phone, video calls, texts and emails can all feel very different to being together in person.
Where we are matters, too – are we at home, in their home, at the hospital, in the car, on a train, at work, out for a walk together…
And the time of day impacts – do we have enough time for this conversation now, are we in a rush, is it late and we – or they – may be tired?
Are we able, in that particular moment, to give the other person our full, undivided attention? Are they?
Do we even know what (we want) to say or what (we think) they want to hear?
Do either of us feel overwhelmed or at a loss for words?
Does the other person just want us to listen? Is that what we want from them?
Are we able to be with them without the need for talking at all?
I think we need to accept the truth of all of this and just do our best – with good intentions – and be prepared to apologise if we get it ‘wrong’.
In these situations it’s often more about being kind than being right.
Mandy Mahoney sums it up very well, I think:
“… it is fine to not always know what to say.
If you tell me it’s awkward and you don’t know what to say I will find a way to make that right for you, and actually on some occasions I might say ‘we don’t have to talk about it’.
But just be real.”