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The Importance of Language

Posted 8/8/2014

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  Words can mean everything. Twice this week I have had conversations with newly diagnosed woman about the intense importance of the words their doctors use. They described desperately hanging on to each syllable, watching for nuance and inflection and expression and body language. They go home and repeat those words, examining and interpreting each one.

  There is the parallel importance of the cultural use of language around cancer. Starting with Nixon's declared War on Cancer, military metaphors are common. We are told to fight; we battle through a treatment or a bad reaction; we never give up. There is also the vocabulary used by health care staff to describe cancer experiences. The worst is:" "Ms X failed Taxol" meaning that her illness progressed through Taxol treatment. Wouldn't it be more accurate to say: "Taxol failed Ms X"?

  This is a thoughtful essay from The Atlantic about these issues.

The Trouble With Medicine's Metaphors
By Dhruv Khullar
I checked her morning labs and they didn’t look good.
Last year, she gave birth to her second child. Last month, she was diagnosed with leukemia. When I
entered her room early one morning, she looked despondent. “Please know you’ve got a great team
caring for you,” I told her. “We’ll fight this together.”
She looked pensively out the window as the sun began to rise. “Yes,” she finally said. “I’m a fighter.”
As I left the room, I couldn’t help thinking of another “fighter”—my aunt, who passed away from
lymphoma nearly a decade earlier. I’ve long wondered whether that word—fighter—and the other
military language used to help her conceptualize her disease did more harm than good. Did she, on
some level, feel she lost the battle because she didn’t fight hard enough? Might she have suffered less at
the end if she hadn’t felt compelled to try one more drug, determined to soldier on?
The words we choose to describe illness are powerful. They carry weight and valence.


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