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Words and Meaning and Cancer

Posted 2/12/2015

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  The vocabulary of cancer is treacherous. I have written before about several of the most hateful phrases: "Ms. X failed Taxol" rather than "Taxol failed Ms. X". The shortcuts of medical language and the habits of medical caregivers often translate to words that are painful, meaningless, or very misleading. Additionally, there is the basic problem of most of us not having attended medical school so being ignorant of some of the vocabulary that is tossed around.

  Any medical conversation occurs in the context of a medical visit or, possibly, a phone call. Many of these are rife with anxiety before the first word is spoken, so there is another layer of difficulty. None of us hear or think most clearly when we are in states of high anxiety. When we hear something particularly terrible, one natural defense is a brain shut off; we just stop hearing. I have a strong memory of being told of my first cancer, and, after the initial shocking sentence, I didn't hear another word. Instead, I watched the surgeon's mouth opening and closing and thought how strange it was that looking at her was similar to watching a fish in an aquarium, mouth open and closing and no sound. Pretty insulting as I write it that way, but you get the gist.

  It has been heartening that some doctors are paying closer attention to their words and to our understanding. It is terrific that patients are apparently writing a new vocabulary that makes perfect sense to us all. For example, the phrase "scanxiety", -- bet I don't have to define that one for you.

  This is an introduction to a truly marvelous essay by Susan Gubar from the New York Times. Here is an excerpt and a link to read more:

Living With Cancer: Coming to Terms

While I continue taking an experimental drug to keep my cancer at bay, I cannot claim to be in either a remission or a recurrence, and the word “maintenance” does not shed much light on the situation. The paucity of the language at my disposal stymies me, as does its obfuscations. I am grateful that patients , hungry for more fortifying formulations, have begun to create them.

“Language is the mother of thought, not the handmaiden of thought,” the poet W. H. Auden once said, quoting the aphorist Karl Kraus, and then he added, “Words will tell you things you never thought or felt before.” Some of the vocabulary swirling around cancer leaves me feeling what I never wanted to feel or unable to think what I need to think.


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