the powerful language of cancer

wordsMy dear friend Cheryl Jones, shared a beautiful, heartfelt tribute to her mother who died this past week of cancer.  One part stood out for me when she said, “for her, cancer was not a battle. It was an experience. It was her last experience.”

I found these words to describe an incredibly beautiful perception. I wrote to Cheryl –

“Speaking aloud the very notion that it’s ok not to fight cancer is a gift you shared.  May your words land gently into the heart of someone who feels they have to fight because that is what is expected.  May it serve to offer a choice to those of us who wish to live rather than survive.”

Many people automatically say that someone with cancer is a “survivor.”  While I respect this choice, it is an assumption that everyone with cancer identifies in this way.

People have associated the word “survivor” with cancer for so long that it has become a default label.

Personally, I prefer to say I am “living with cancer” than surviving it.  The language helps me to shift my focus on the day to day rather than longevity, as the term survival implies.  Indeed, there are “survivors” who are living day to day as well.  I do not mean to be divisive.  “Living with cancer” is simply the terminology that I prefer. It describes my experience more accurately than survival does.

Language is a powerful thing.  As an advocate for disability rights, I have witnessed the use of respectful, person-first language to create a social shift in the perception of individuals with disabilities and the promotion of disability rights. Similarly, word-choice about cancer influences how people relate to someone with a cancer diagnosis.

Our media is full of intense cancer terms.  “She lost her battle…”, “ After a long fight with cancer…”  The media floods our lives with images and slogans and assumptions that when someone is diagnosed with cancer, they are spending their days fighting. These war terms just do not sit right with me. We can not assume that everyone with cancer uses the same expressions to describe their attitude, perception, or approach.

When I was first diagnosed, I thought fighting was what was expected of me.  I thought I was “doing it all wrong” because I didn’t want to take on the stress and intensity of fighting.  Then I came to realize that fighting cancer was not my only option…it was just the language that made me think this was so.

Once I gave myself permission to not fight cancer, I tapped my inner strength to live with it.  I found strength through surrender.  Not hopelessness.  Not passivity.  But, strength in surrendering to something deep within me.

My truth is that I would prefer to spend my days living life rather than surviving cancer.  The ovarian cancer I have in my body is not currently curable …treatable yes, curable no…at least not today.  Yes, many women have lived beyond the statistics.  This well could be me.

Whether I have 10 months or 10 years, I choose to experience cancer. I may not survive but you can bet I will be living until then.


cheryl jones

I have known Cheryl Jones as a personal friend who has an exceptional gift of wise counsel.  Her online radio show Good Grief features a series of interviews exploring grief and loss as a powerful teacher in life.  I encourage you to listen to Cheryl’s show at VoiceAmerica.

6 Responses to “the powerful language of cancer”

  1. Arlyn Anderson says:

    This is so powerful, Bridgett. Even that use of language points me to layers of meaning and intent I wasn’t aware of. Powerfully moving and eye-opening. Sorry ’bout the cancer, and it is so like you to make it serve us all.

  2. Eugene Tsuji says:

    My wife has stage 4 melanoma. From the beginning she has concentrated on healing rather than fighting. Our words and thoughts guide so much of our physical world, and you folks have definitely tapped that inner source.

  3. Cheryl Jones says:

    Dearest Bridgett, I am honored by your words! Thank you for being you 🙂

  4. Bridgett, thank you for articulating what I have felt for some time…your way of talking about the language used to describe and define the experience of cancer is profoundly touching.

    Living with cancer is a day to day experience…and, after all, none of us will ‘survive’ this life anyhow…cancer or not.

    So you are making me think…..I am ‘living with Life’ …maybe the challenges are different than ‘living with cancer’ …(SURELY they are!) …but for all of us, accepting our conditions is not that easy, but life is easier when we can remember that we are living one moment at a time, really.

    Thank you both!

  5. Cathy says:


    Love this the thought- living with cancer. Ironically for almost 7 years I have never been comfortable with the term survivor. It just didn’t define how I saw myself for the different experiences and treatments I have gone through. Thanks for the perspective.


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