How Should We Be Talking About Breast Cancer?

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I'll be frank: this article was hard to write. After covering my own experience with Stage IV metastatic breast cancer over a multi-part blog series, and writing supplemental pieces for this publication and others, you'd think it'd be a piece of cake.

The reality is, I feel daunted by a sense of responsibility to do right by my peers—and myself, too—in capturing all that we have to say in a two-page spread. It's a lot.

This all started with a Facebook post—another space where I share openly about my disease. It was about how others, mostly those who don't have it, speak about breast cancer. It was a plea of sorts for people to listen, to think, and to educate themselves before they speak. To understand that words and phrases that have become part of the norm around breast cancer can be hurtful, minimizing, and out of step.

I'll preface what comes next by saying that I do not speak for everyone. But I did take the opportunity to bring in other voices besides my own to inform this piece, and following is a snapshot of conversations I had with several members of a support group I belong to.

Words matter and language is powerful. Here's what we want you to take away:

Drop the war metaphors.
There's an article circulating right now that supports the use of battle-like terms when talking about treating cancer. But, the large majority of us—those of us who are incurable, especially—don't particularly agree. For one, to be told we have to be fighters and warriors steals our sense of peace. And, it can make us feel pressured to be courageous, and guilty on days when we aren't. When it comes to being Stage IV, the odds tell us this is a clash we can't win. Have we failed when we run out of options? That's not how we want to be thought of or remembered—and not all of us want to spend our precious days being in attack mode, either.

Don't be glib about the term "survivor."
Early on, I was told that every day I wake up, I'm a survivor. But, I promise you, true or not, that's not how most of us with MBC identify ourselves. Survivors can sometimes be viewed as an elite group. They're the ones who went through treatment and came out the other side. They may wear their pink proudly or solemnly, but, either way, survivorship is like a badge of valor. Which correlates closely with these war metaphors that can be more harmful than helpful. And what happens when a survivor has a recurrence? It's about a 30% chance. Now they're cruelly plucked from the "in" crowd and placed at a table where no one wants to sit.

Stop saying it's the "easy" cancer.
Before I was diagnosed, I was of this notion. Even for a brief few days before I got the really bad news, I thought I was going to kick its ass. See what I mean? Maybe it was that the majority of my close family who were affected by it did or have done well for many years. Maybe it was all those cancer walks I went on that led me to believe this was something that could almost always be beat. I guess I just breezed past the "in memoriam" dedications. With that in mind, consider avoiding phrases like, "You've got this," or "You're going to punch cancer in the throat." We might not do any such thing. And, again, we aren't losers if we don't.

Please don't sexualize our disease.
This is something few people think about, but imagine what it feels like to have so much focus on the breasts. "Save the ta-tas" or "save second base" are two slogans that come to mind. These, as well as references to boob jobs and fundraising campaigns involving decorating bras (this has actually happened), diminish the anguish felt by those of us who have had mastectomies or disfiguring lumpectomies, and generally make light of a very serious topic.

These are a few ways we shouldn't be talking about breast cancer. Then, how should we? In short, with thoughtfulness. Listen and learn, and with that knowledge, do better.

Heartfelt thanks to Katie, Cindy, Vicky, and Lynnette from our Living with Mets (MBC) in Michigan group for their contributions to this piece.

Allison Kay Bannister has been a West Michigan resident since 1987 and a professional writer since 2002. A GVSU alumna, she launched her own freelance writing business in 2017. Allison is a cookie connoisseur, word nerd, aspiring gardener, and metastatic breast cancer thriver who loves traveling in Michigan and beyond, and enjoys art, world cuisine, wine, music, and making homemade preserves.

This article originally appeared in the Oct/Nov '22 issue of West Michigan Woman.


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