Cancer as a Foreign Language

Just now, I looked up the word “cancer” in the small Spanish dictionary sitting on the table in front of my couch.  I use this dictionary to do homework for the Spanish class I began a few weeks back. We’re supposed to be learning new vocabulary so I occasionally look up words in it. It’s not a very good dictionary because it’s so abbreviated, but cancer is one of the words that’s included.  The Spanish word for cancer is — cáncer.

My online translator tells me that, in French, the word for cancer is also cancer. Same goes for Portuguese, Swedish, Romanian, Urdu, and even Latin. The word, like the disease itself, crosses many cultures, making it, unfortunately, a universal language. Nothing lost in translation here. It’s all understood.

The language used to talk about cancer, however, often becomes foreign, even in your native tongue. As I’ve gone along on this journey, I’ve had to puzzle out some of the words and phrases that get bandied about.  Take, for instance, that word journey.  In the land of cancer, this word takes on new meaning — not just an excursion or adventure, but something arduous and with a very definite (and perhaps dark) end.  To the list of clichés we use about dying (passed, crossed over, kicked the bucket, bought the farm), you can add this phrase:  “He completed his journey.”

Treatment is another term that gets used  often, not just for cancer but for many situations, each one having its own shade of meaning.  In the land of cancer, treatment refers to both chemotherapy and radiation (but not surgery), and I was often asked how my treatment was going or whether I had a treatment on a given day.  The term can just as easily refer to drug rehab, or Tiger Woods’ recent stay at the sex addiction clinic in Mississippi.  In any case, it implies something serious and long-term.  I came to hate the word.

Then there‘s the phrase “think positive,” which likely became popular after Norman Vincent Peale (I wonder if anyone just calls him “Norm”) published his book about the power of it all.  Keith Block, the founder of the Block Center for Integrative Cancer Treatment in Evanston, Illinois, has something to say about this phrase. He defines it as one of the “mind myths” that can interfere with recovery from cancer: “This notion . . . is a distortion of the idea that the mind can influence cancer.  While your  mind can affect your recovery, reducing complex mind-body connections to the command to ‘think positive’ is misleading and injurious.” He goes on to say that it’s not scientifically accurate, and that accepting and managing the emotional rollercoaster that comes with cancer is healthier, citing a study that showed restricting emotional expression in patients with a recurrence of breast cancer actually shortened their survival period.

The Block Center ( combines Western and alternative forms of treatment ranging from surgery and chemotherapy to diet, supplements, exercise, and many of the therapeutic energy modalities I‘ve been experimenting with.  That’s the “integrative” part, and integrative is another word that‘s become more popular, especially with regard to medicine.

In his book, Life Over Cancer, Block points out the more damaging effect of the think positive myth, that it produces a blame-the-victim attitude, so that if patients suffer a setback, it’s because they weren’t being positive enough.  He does say, though, that hope and determination, which he defines as being different from forced positivity, can be healing because they support patients’ efforts to get the best treatment and do what they can to help themselves.

Like integrative, the term survivorship is becoming increasingly popular. In the broad sense, it refers to that period after you’ve passed through a traumatic experience — cancer or other serious illness, an accident, any life-altering event.  Unfortunately, the term survivor has been trivialized, especially by the TV show, so that now we call ourselves survivors of things like a failed romance. In Cancerland (a term coined by Barbara Ehrenreich), survivorship begins on the day of diagnosis and continues throughout the patient’s lifetime. The National Cancer Institute goes so far as to include the family and friends of the individual in this category.  By that definition, all of you are cancer survivors, just because you’ve been reading my blog.

I’ve heard and read that some survivors of cancer refer to it as “a gift.”  Well, if cancer is indeed a gift, I wouldn’t mind having the receipt to return it, and I’m certainly hoping it’s not one that keeps on giving. Keith Block addresses the use of this term this way:  “Just as cancer is not a punishment, neither is it, in reality, a gift.”  The personal changes that come about as a result of having had cancer may indeed be a gift, but the disease itself is not. And there are certainly better ways to bring about these changes.

In an attempt to manage my own emotional rollercoaster during my survivorship, I spent another day this week at Harmony Hill  (, that beautiful retreat center on Hood Canal that offers free workshops for us survivors.  This week’s session offered ways to identify and manage the emotional fallout of the disease.  The moderator talked about the various cultural interpretations of illness, from the Cherokee, who believe that illness brings us lessons (not punishment) to help us reclaim a part of the soul that has been lost, to the Chinese, who believe that illness develops because of  a blockage of energy.

The language expressed at the retreat was one of emotion, specifically the difficult emotions that accompany a diagnosis of cancer — anger, sadness, grief, fear — but the day ended with the language of music and the body.  At the end of the workshop, the moderator divided the group into clusters to sing our own rendition of  that children’s favorite, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Then, he played a rhythmic drum and flute recording and we all danced.  As we danced, I glanced over at M____, a woman who started out the day hunched over, describing the fear and pain she did not know how to deal with. But while she danced, swaying with her eyes closed, her face glowed and she began to smile.

Some language is best not put into words.


3 Responses to “Cancer as a Foreign Language”

  1. Beverly Says:

    I always appreciate the observations you share and your meditations. They are from an experience we hope never to have ourselves, yet if we ever do we will surely have a better map to begin with, “okage-sama-de”.

  2. Sue Rickels Says:

    Probably of all the words I’ve hated since my first serious diagnosis (not cancer) in 1963, is “to think positive.” Please! This plays into the fallacy of mind/body dichotomy. Of all of the above words, “Journey” seems most appropriate. It’s the title of Susan’s Massey’s book about their incredible battle against their son’s hemophilia and his death. This led to Robert Massey’s famous book, “Nicholas and Alexandria,” and the history of that time leading to the desperate cure for their son’s attacks with the infamous Rasputin.

    The journey of chronic illness is much like Frodo’s in Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings.” My favorite title is from a book decades ago: “Mine Enemy Grows Older.”

    Love the etymology, Julie. Curiosity…my American Heritage Dictionary says cancer is from Middle English, canker and Old French cancre and the Latin cancer with the current meaning as well as crab. I’m wondering if the shape of the crab and it’s claws gave the word it’s meaning from it’s imagery. Interesting at any rate.

    Susan Sontag’s book “Illness as Metaphor,” is the only book I know of that even addresses the language of illness.


  3. Julie Yamamoto Says:

    I read that the label cancer does indeed come from the crablike appearance of the vessels surrounding the tumor, which earlier docs thought to resemble a crab.

    I recall once trying to read some of The Lord of the Rings but not having much success. Perhaps I need to try again. I have read Sonntag’s book, though, and appreciated her cultural perspective on cancer, comparing it to the way tuberculosis was viewed in the 19th century. Here’s hoping someone stumbles across a simple cause of cancer, the way they determined the cause of TB to be a simple one.

    Thanks for your insights, Sue!

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