I’ve lost several close friends to cancer, my dad has had recurrences of the disease over the past decade, and just recently my beloved sister-in-law was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. At this writing, thank goodness, we know that her tumor has not spread. She will still be facing several rounds of chemo and radiation and the side effects that come with that treatment, but she and her oncologist are optimistic about a very positive outcome.

If you’ve ever experienced it, or know someone who has, a cancer diagnosis turns life upside down for everyone involved. As my sister-in-law faces chemo, I am struck by the words we as marketers use to help people with cancer diagnoses make decisions about where to seek care.

How do we help people with this life-changing disease in a way that is respectful and informative?

Words can hurt

The last thing we as marketers want to do is admonish, berate or disrespect people dealing with cancer. However, in our effort to evoke the hope of overcoming this fearful disease in our audiences, we’ve been using metaphors to describe its treatment that can stir up feelings of guilt and failure. This may not be new to many of you who have created any kind of cancer messaging in the past few years, but people with cancer find that the combat metaphors we commonly use often make them feel responsible, or to blame, for not fighting hard enough. I’m talking about words like:

  • Win the war
  • Fight this
  • Beat this
  • Do battle
  • You’re a warrior

In 2014, Kate Granger, a registrar in elderly medicine working in Yorkshire, England—and a terminally ill cancer patient—wrote in The Guardian:

“I do not want to feel a failure about something beyond my control.”

“In my world, having cancer is not a fight at all. It is almost a symbiosis where I am forced to live with my disease day in, day out.”

“I submitted myself to this treatment gently, and somewhat reluctantly, taking whatever each day had to throw at me. I certainly didn’t enter the process ‘with all guns blazing.’ ”

“I believe rather that instead of reaching for the traditional battle language, [life] is about living as well as possible, coping, acceptance, gentle positivity, setting short-term, achievable goals, and drawing on support from those closest to you.”

More about hope

In 2017, NPR interviewed Lori Wallace, a cancer patient who wrote an essay titled “F*** Silver Linings and Pink Ribbons.” Wallace reported that as her cancer progressed, she became more critical of excessive positivity in health care marketing. She felt that the messages we marketers create that include patients who’ve overcome steep odds are a slap in the face to people like her. In the interview, however, she does share that she would have been attracted to messages of hope before she had cancer, but now she needs realism—“acceptance of both the world’s beauty and its harshness.”

What about journey?

A popular metaphor we are using now when we talk about someone who has cancer is to describe it as a journey. Professor Elena Semino, a linguist from Lancaster University has spent years examining how metaphors, like journey, are used in different groups of people affected by cancer—cancer patients, family care providers and health care professionals—and how they resonated with them. She found that when cancer patients use journey:

“They talk about being on a journey with everyone else who has the illness, they talk about themselves as companions on the same journey, and the people who have been ill for longer leading the way for the ones that have got a more recent diagnosis. They also talk about a sense of purpose in planning one’s journey one step at a time.”

She also found:

“For some the journey is less like an epic adventure, and more like a trip from hell.”

“For some other people, there is this idea of a reluctant journey. One person says, how the hell am I supposed to navigate this road I don’t even want to be on.”

The words we’re looking for

As we approach the words we use when we create messages about cancer care, we need to think about the fear and uncertainty people with cancer are experiencing.

There are no perfect words or metaphors for every person who is affected by cancer.

My takeaway from cancer patients like Kate Granger and Lori Wallace, and researchers like Elena Semino, is that people faced with cancer want to hear the truth using honest, well-chosen words so that they can make good decisions.

I believe our words can be hopeful and empowering without being excessive.

They need to convey a sense of comfort, show compassion, talk about symptom management and quality of life. They need to impart a feeling of partnership and a dedication and expertise for acting as a guide through difficult decisions.

Our words should be about exploration, struggle, discovery, endurance, ingenuity, adaptation and change.

For consideration

Many people don’t want to be defined by cancer, but as a person with the experience of undergoing treatment for cancer. Rather than fighting cancer, they want others to know they are living with cancer. Instead of being referred to as a survivor they want to be known as cancer-free.

Three words that change lives

“You have cancer” are three words that change people’s lives forever. They may be the three scariest words in the world. When we create messages for people who have heard those words we need to remember what they are going through now, what they will go through in the future and what is important to them as they make decisions about where to seek treatment.