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Clichés can leave people with cancer feeling isolated, charity warns

PUBLISHED: 09:13 29 January 2019 | UPDATED: 11:21 29 January 2019

For Sue Boucher, 46, from Barrow, words like ‘fighter’, ‘battle’ and ‘warrior’ actually made her feel worse Picture: MACMILLAN

For Sue Boucher, 46, from Barrow, words like ‘fighter’, ‘battle’ and ‘warrior’ actually made her feel worse Picture: MACMILLAN

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Well-meaning euphemisms and simplistic clichés are leaving thousands of people with cancer feeling disempowered and isolated, a new survey has revealed.

Macmillan’s survey of more than 2,000 people who have or have had cancer revealed the emotional turmoil of trying to find the ‘right’ words for someone diagnosed with the disease.

Results showed people who have had a cancer diagnosis considered positive descriptions of themselves such as ‘hero’ as unpopular as ‘cancer stricken’ and ‘victim’.

Nearly one in three people living with cancer said they struggle to find the words to talk about the disease, and more than one in four have difficulty talking honestly about their feelings around it.

Sue Boucher, 46, from Barrow, near Bury St Edmunds, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in October 2018.

“Unfortunately, I have a lot of cancer in the family. Over the years, I’ve encountered people who struggle with what to say or how to react,” she said.

“I’ve certainly had the ‘oh you’re so brave’ or ‘you’re such a hero’ which I don’t like. If you’re told you have cancer, you just have to deal with it. “Anyone can be in the situation I’m in. You have to get on with your day to day life, but with an added element to it.”

The poll by YouGov also highlighted preferences for clear and factual language when it comes to discussing the death of someone with cancer, with ‘died’ seen as appropriate by almost two thirds.

Euphemistic descriptions claiming someone had ‘lost their battle’ or ‘lost their fight’ to cancer were felt to be inappropriate by respondents, with many feeling that words such as these implied someone was defeated by the disease.

Media articles and posts on social networks were the worst offenders for using language deemed inappropriate, according to more than half of those surveyed.

Almost one in five said friends and family had done the same, and nearly one in ten said even health professionals had used inappropriate language.

Macmillan has launched a new advertising campaign – ‘Whatever cancer throws your way, we’re right there with you’ – to highlight the support available to people who are diagnosed with the disease.

Karen Roberts, chief nursing officer at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “These results show just how divisive and ‘Marmite’ simple words and descriptions can be.

“Cancer throws all kinds of things your way, and struggling to find the words, and the emotional turmoil caused when our friends and family don’t get it ‘right’ only makes lives feel even more upended.

“We know that there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ person with cancer, so it follows that people will prefer different ways of talking about it. We hear from people every day who face this problem, that at its worst could even stop people getting the support they need.

“By drawing attention to this we want to encourage more people to talk about the words they prefer to hear, and stop the damage that can be caused to people’s wellbeing and relationships.

“Our support line, information services and Macmillan professionals are right there to make sure that everyone with cancer gets the support they need.”

For more information, visit www.macmillan.org.uk/righttherewithyou

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