Big C or little c? How cancer fears can do more harm than the disease
Cancer. The very word conjures up images of hospital beds, surgical scars, lost love ones. There’s no doubt it’s a big word, the subject of countless sorrows, but given advances in medicine and treatment is it time we reconsidered what it really means?
The origin of the word is credited to the so-called father of medicine, Hippocrates, who used the phrase “carcinos”, or crab-like, to refer to the spreading projections of a tumour, which could be loosely described as shaped like a crab. The word also appears in many Shakespearean plays and sonnets, such as Sonnet 99: “A vengeful canker eat him up to death”.
A cancer diagnosis during Shakespeare’s time would likely be a death sentence, but in 2016, the situation is very different. The disease will touch all of our lives – in the US, about half of all men and a third of all women will develop cancer – but we’ve now reached a stage where more people survive a cancer diagnosis than die. Advances in diagnosis, testing and treatment (along with improvements in standards of living, attitudes to health, etc.) mean we’ve reached a point where the word needn’t be so scary as it once was.
There are over a 100 different types of cancer, each with their own symptoms treatments, and but most crucially, prognoses. Lets take a look at two very different types of cancer. A person diagnosed with non-metastasised testicular cancer has a predicted five-year survival rate of almost 99 per cent. An adult diagnosed with pancreatic cancer has a five-year survival rate of three per cent. There are also a group of slow growing cancers that many experts are now arguing should not be called cancer because the negative impact of the word could cause more damage than the disease itself.
According to Dr Jeff Patton, chief executive officer of Tennessee Oncology,, "It's a double-edged sword," he said. "We want people to be comfortable with cancer, but we don't want them to take it lightly."
Let’s consider prostate cancer. It’s relatively common, the second most prevalent in the UK, and treatable in many cases. Unfortunately, most men who undergo treatment are rendered impotent within two years of treatment. If you consider this against the fact that a third of all prostate cancer patients can be successfully treated by close monitoring only, it does make you wonder if patients are frightened into treatment earlier than need be. The question is how much of this is to do with the baggage surrounding the word cancer?
So why is this interesting to us and to our clients? It shows how powerful language can be. When you have a condition that means so many things to different people, it's critical that the language used to communicate with a patient takes into account their unique situation, leaving no room for ambiguity. Our role as researchers is to ensure that clients know who they’re speaking to and employ the most relevant and powerful language to reach them.
Health through the Culture Lens is a weekly series exploring important cultural currents in health and pharma
Image source: International Business Times
- Article by Lee Gazey