• Breast Cancer Awareness Month: When Language Fails

    All week I’ve been ruminating on what else about BCAM doesn’t sit right with me and I always circle back to the topic of language. Back in December 2014, I wrote a post about how the words ‘sick’ and ‘healthy’ were not adequate for cancer treatment. There are other words I hear during BCAM don’t make sense to me either. Words like: 

    • Fight
    • Strong
    • Brave
    • Inspiration
    • ‘Lost the battle’

    These words put so much pressure on cancer patients. I know every time I heard them I felt the need to protect the speaker from the nastiness of cancer treatment. I would smile and say, “I’m fine,” when I was anything but. And that last bullet implies fault in the cancer patient. It implies they weren’t strong enough, when they are probably the strongest among us.  

    Below is the post I wrote then. The words in it still hold true for me today. 



    Saturday, December 20, 2014

    Run/ Walk/ Bike/ Elliptical (Today:  3.00 miles;  Running Total: 91.52 miles)

    Day 162 of cancer treatment.

    I hate being referred to as ‘sick’.

    The word ‘sick’ has implications.  Namely ‘weakness’ and ‘incapacity’.  I am neither weak nor incapable, and this word only makes me resent the person using it.

    Now that I’ve had time to think about it, I also dislike the counterpart to ‘sick’:  ‘healthy’.

    The meaning of both words confuses me because I’m neither.

    Based on the definitions of these two words, one can either be ‘sick’ or ‘healthy’.  There’s no middle ground.



    I was diagnosed with breast cancer on July 9th.

    If I’d walked outside the clinic immediately after being diagnosed and asked a stranger on the street, “I just found out I have cancer.  Does that make me ‘sick’?” that person would undoubtedly have said, “Yes”.

    (They also would have given me the first of many pitying looks and scurried away so they didn’t have to confront their own mortality, but that’s beside the point.)

    But on July 8th, just one day before I was diagnosed, that same person would likely have called me ‘healthy’.

    More than ‘healthy’.

    The term ‘fitness nut’ was not unusual for me to hear. People at work used to give me hell because I spent my lunch break in the gym instead of gossiping over Chinese food with co-workers.

    I worked out at least 5 days a week. I watched what I ate. I maintained a healthy weight.

    I was in the best shape of my life.

    And I had cancer.

    Take a look at the definition for ‘healthy’.


    That sure sounds like me on July 8th.

    Also, keep in mind that those tumors didn’t just appear overnight.  I may have had cancer for years before being diagnosed.

    So was I ‘sick’ a year ago?  Two years ago?  Three?

    When exactly did I go from ‘healthy’ to ‘sick’?  When that first cancer cell ruptured its membrane and started to breed?

    I find it hard to believe that I went from being ‘healthy’ on July 8th to being ‘sick’ on July 9th and yet felt no different.

    So let’s analyze the word ‘healthy’.

    (See definition above.)

    Fast forward from July 8th, the day before diagnosis, to today’s date.

    I am at the tail end of chemotherapy.

    I have lost my hair.  My immune system requires support via the Neulasta injections.  One out of every three weeks I am barely functional, needing a nap after strenuous activities like taking a shower or brushing my teeth.

    And when the fun of chemotherapy is over, I have a mastectomy and radiation to look forward to.

    But, health wise, I’m probably ‘healthier’ now than before I was diagnosed because the cancer is dying.

    I’m still very active, and I’m sure my husband would attest to the fact that I still have a ‘vigorous mentality’ (which, I think, translates to ‘stubborn’).

    So am I ‘healthy’?


    Are you confused?

    Me too.

    I wonder, will I be ‘healthy’ after cancer treatment is over?  If even a single cancer cell escapes alive, am I then ‘sick’?

    Which leads to two more big questions:

    1. How will I know?


    2. Will I know in time?

    I’ve pondered these questions and these words for months and I still don’t have an answer.

    Something is very clear to me though:  the words ‘healthy’ and ‘sick’ fall short of what I am.

    What any of us are.

    Because, really, we might all be in the middle ground.

    Today’s silver lining:  I added 3 miles to that number up there!  Woo me!

    What’s your silver lining today?  I love comments!


2 Responsesso far.

  1. Sabrina says:

    This is so true, Meghan!
    I hear a lot from other people that I am strong and brave, and that I have to keep fighting. I don’t feel strong or brave, and I don’t feel like I am fighting. I just do what needs to be done, and trust that I get the right treatment. For some reason I can’t explain I have no fear or anxiety, I haven’t cried once since I know that I have cancer. But that’s not because I am strong, or brave, or fight. That’s just a part of me I can’t explain right now, sorry. It’s not that easy.

    • Meghan says:

      No “sorry” is necessary. You do what you have to do to get by, and don’t worry about explaining it. It’s different for everyone. No one can tell you how to walk this road, because their road was /is/will be different.

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