Recently, I joined my family in remembering Harriet Berman. At Harriet’s funeral, her children celebrated her life in many ways. Among the many stories and reflections, one message stood out to me: Harriet deeply disliked the language used to describe the experience of being a cancer patient—being a victim of cancer. Fighting a Battle with cancer. Living as a Survivor of cancer.
Harriet did not like the implications of the language. Battling something implies there is a winner and a loser. It implies that if you’re fighting, and losing, then you are not fighting hard enough. If you could fight just a little harder, with stronger or better tools, you might survive a little longer.
This immediately made sense to me. I never thought to question the ubiquity of the cancer-patient language. After thinking about the language, I was surprised that a conversation around it has not sprung up at IHI. I would like to start that conversation.
I do not know what the right language should be. I am sure there are many cancer patients who find the current language comforting, and I do not want to discredit any of the comfort they find in the language. However, I think we can do a better job understanding that different people may respond in different ways to the language we accept as normal.
How can we shift this conversation? What are the words and phrases that will enable us to provide support and encouragement to people facing difficult situations? I do not think that one wordsmith can find the right answer, but if we discuss this together, we may find a more inclusive way to support each other.