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'Don't call us heroes': Macmillan reveals the cancer cliches

Cancer patients don't want to be described as fighters, heroes or victims, research has shown.

A new poll from Macmillan Cancer Support found many felt "battling" or "fighting" words were inappropriate to describe them - but equally they do not want to be called a hero.

People with cancer most hated being described as cancer stricken, followed by being a hero and then a cancer victim.

The UK poll by Macmillan Cancer Support of 2,000 people who have or had cancer found "cancer-stricken" and "victim" were also among the least-liked terms.

42%
Thought words such as hero, cancer victim and cancer stricken were disempowering

Calling a person's cancer diagnosis a "war" or a "battle" and saying they had "lost their battle" or "lost their fight" when they died, were other unpopular descriptions, according to the poll.

Most said this was because it implied somebody was defeated by cancer while many thought it undermined a person's strength and courage.

The survey found a preference for factual words to describe people with cancer, their diagnosis, and when someone with the illness dies.

Articles in the media and posts on social networks were found to be the worst offenders for using such language.

When it comes to death, 64% said people should be described as having died from cancer, with others preferring passed away.

Mandy Mahoney, who's featured in the Macmillan video, is living with incurable breast cancer. Credit: Macmillan
44%
Thought it was inappropriate to say someone had lost their battle

Almost one in three people living with cancer said they struggle to find the words to talk about the disease.

Mandy Mahoney, 47, an outreach support worker from London, is living with incurable breast cancer.

The mother of two said: "I think cancer speak can be quite negatively loaded - the brave, fighter, warrior and survivor standard descriptors put an awful lot of pressure on the newly diagnosed.

"I prefer clear, factual language, so I describe myself as 'living with incurable cancer'. I'm not brave or inspirational, I'm just trying to live the life I have left well."

Raveen Sethi was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in 2018. Credit: Macmillan

Raveen Sethi is a 24-year old trainee financial adviser from Essex. She was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in 2018 and is now in remission.

She said: "My pet peeve was people telling me 'your hair will grow back'. I didn't choose to lose my hair so I found it unhelpful.

"I did find I was isolating myself from my friends. I just wanted someone to talk and vent to," Ms Sethi added.

However, Craig Toley, who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2016 and is now in remission, said he thought some of the positive terms could be empowering.

Craig Toley was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2016. Credit: Macmillan

The 31-year-old, who is a powerlifter in his spare time, said: "Language like 'fight', 'struggle', 'warrior' and 'battle' will be interpreted differently by different people.

"Personally, I found those words helped empower me a lot and made me think of my cancer as a challenge I needed to fight.

"Everyone likes the story of a fighter," he added.

Karen Roberts, chief nursing officer at Macmillan, 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.

Chief nursing officer at Macmillan Karen Roberts. Credit: Macmillan

Ms Roberts said: "We hear from people every day who face this problem, that at its worst could even stop people getting the support they need.

"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 wellbeing and relationships."

Macmillan, funded almost entirely by public donations, has more than 100 years' experience of being right there with people with cancer and their loved ones to offer emotional, physical and financial support.

  • Here is more information on talking about cancer