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Loaded words can hinder support for cancer patients, says Macmillan

Terms such as hero and victim are ‘disempowering’ and create pressure to be positive

Terms such as hero and victim are ‘disempowering’ and may prevent patients accessing the care they need

Describing someone with cancer inappropriately could prevent them from getting the support they need, Macmillan Cancer Support’s chief nurse has said.

The charity surveyed more than 2,000 people who have had a cancer diagnosis, and found 8% of respondents thought health professionals used inappropriate language.

Macmillan’s words to avoid

  • Hero
  • Cancer-stricken
  • Victim
  • Battling
  • Fighter
  • Lost their fight/battle

Six out of ten people with cancer do not want to be described as a ‘fighter’ and many object to the suggestion they are ‘battling’ the disease, it said.

Preferred ways of talking

Macmillan chief nursing officer Karen Roberts said: ‘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, which at its worst could even stop people getting the support they need.


Karen Roberts: ‘There is no such thing
as a typical person with cancer.’
Picture: David Gee

‘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 well-being and relationships.’

Pressure to be positive

The survey found 42% of people who have had a cancer diagnosis considered terms such as hero, cancer-stricken and victim as disempowering, 30% said they put people under pressure to be positive and 24% found such words isolating.

The poll highlights 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 (64%).

More than half of respondents said media articles and posts on social networks were the worst offenders in using inappropriate language.

Avoid language trap

RCN cancer and breast care forum chair Susanne Cruickshank said: ‘Nurses know cancer is unpredictable.

‘Any language that may have come into nurses’ vocabulary is not necessarily because they have specifically chosen it, but because it’s part of what is being used in the media, and that in turn permeates everyday society.

‘They shouldn’t fall into the trap of using that language, because the majority of people with cancer just don’t like it.’


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