Referring to cancer patients as “victims” was commonplace when I first became an oncology social worker in the 1980’s. Labels were common and even dehumanizing in those days. I remember frequently hearing references to “The pancreas in Room 1020,” or “The colon in 613.” Wow. I hope we’ve learned to do better than that in 2021. Fortunately, one doesn’t hear “cancer victim” much anymore as it’s been replaced by “patient.”
The origin of the word “patient” comes from the Latin patiens, a sufferer, a person without control, passively waiting for something to happen. Even though I find myself saying it on occasion, I’m not fond of even using the word “patient” because even that label is…well – still a label.
Today a person who’s been diagnosed with cancer might be referred to as a patient, a survivor, a warrior, a fighter, a conqueror, an overcomer, a thriver, a hero even. Each word conjures up an image, but for some people none of these words feel accurate because it puts someone in a category she may not identify with. When possible, I like to stay away from any of those terms and use the phrase “Someone who has had a cancer diagnosis” because that is a factual statement and respects the whole person without categorizing or labeling.
Think about the labels you pin on yourself, which could include a role or an emotion. Take for example a 40-year-old woman whose labels might include being a divorcée, a mother, an employee, a jogger, an artist, a gardener, scared, overwhelmed, confident, shy, determined, or angry. Each word suggests a circumstance or a behavior. Do you form a mental picture when reading each label? A confident employee is likely to act differently than an angry employee. Likewise, a terrified person who has cancer is likely to act differently than someone who is determined to use all avenues to eradicate the disease.
The familiar childhood rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” reflects the concept that words don’t have an impact. But words do matter; others’ words can hurt or at the very least, not accurately reflect who we are. A person’s own words – her self-talk – can be harmful by perpetuating negativity, helplessness, or a victim mentality, or they can be a powerful tool to promote optimism, well-being and resiliency. How we approach any situation will be determined by the words we use because our words can help us move forward with hope and confidence or render us immobilized.
You can gain insight into the power of your words as you create your own Wordle by writing down the words you use to describe your cancer experience or your life experience in general. Remember, the most powerful words in the universe are the words you say to yourself because your words shape your emotions which in turn determine your behavior.
What labels do you use to describe yourself? What are your words?
Join us the 2nd Monday of each month at 1:00 PM (MST) for a discussion related to this Blog. Request a Zoom link below, to join the discussion.
SUE'S GIFT BLOG
Sherry Martin is the Patient Services Director for Sue's Gift, a licensed clinical social worker with over thirty years of experience in the field of oncology social work, and author of the book, Beginning Again: Tools for the Journey through Grief: A Step-by-Step Guide for Facilitators of a Grief Support Group. Sherry lives with her husband in Woodland Park, Colorado.
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