Cancer is the condition in which abnormal cells proliferate uncontrollably in the body, whether in a specific organ (colon cancer, lung cancer) or within a system (leukemia), and is a leading cause of death worldwide.
When writing about cancer, be aware of some of the most prevalent narratives and linguistic pitfalls around it. Cancer treatment and people being treated for cancer are often spoken of in militaristic terminology like “war,” “fighters,” “heroic survivors,” and “won/lost the battle.” These terms can imply that cancer is a war, and difficulty in treatment may be portrayed as a “defeat” or personal failure. When writing about a person receiving cancer treatment, it’s especially useful to pay attention to and understand the terms that people use to refer to themselves. More factual terms to describe the process and details of treatment are also helpful for clarity. For example, instead of describing a “harrowing journey” involving “toxic chemicals” and an “uphill battle,” describe a treatment plan that can lead to the cell-damaging effects intended by chemotherapy.
Politicians may use terms like “cancer” or “metastasize” to describe the proliferation of a problem in a particular area; these narratives often contain racial and socioeconomic implications, so use caution, especially if outside of direct quotes.
Discussions around the causes of cancer often contain reference to lifestyle factors, which generally mean things like diet, weight, tobacco use, or alcohol consumption. The underlying implication in many of these discussions is that “lifestyle factors” are entirely within a person’s control, and that a person who does not follow established health guidelines has knowingly raised their risk for cancer. This, in turn, carries numerous assumptions and attitudes about everything from socioeconomic status and race to gender and education. While cancer risk is affected by the factors listed above, it is also affected by immutable qualities like age, and by broader systemic forces, for instance exposure to damaging substances and access to preventive health care. Therefore, the term “risk factors” may be most appropriate when writing about cancer (applicable to any risk caused by any reason).
Cancer is a diverse group of diseases. Some cancers (such as chronic leukemia) may be considered chronic illnesses, while others may be experienced as singular occurrences. Access to cancer treatment also varies widely. Whether writing about cancer generally or a specific type of cancer, it’s useful to consult as demographically diverse a group of sources as possible.
|Instead of||Preferable phrasing|
|battle, war, fight, uphill battle||cancer treatment, treatment plan|
|heroic, survivor||person treated for cancer, person who had cancer (if past tense is appropriate)|
|toxic chemicals, toxins||chemotherapy, cytotoxic|
|lifestyle risk, lifestyle factors||risk factors|
- Writing about Cancer Guidelines (Cancer Institute New South Wales)
- How We Talk About Cancer: Insights on language for journalists (Association of Health Care Journalists)
Cancer is a disease related to the uncontrolled proliferation of abnormal cells in the body and the leading cause of death worldwide. The term has long been used metaphorically. Use caution when employing the term in a metaphorical sense, as such narratives often contain racial and socioeconomic implications. When writing about a person receiving cancer treatment, it’s especially useful to pay attention to and understand the terms they use to refer to themselves.