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Weekly Blog: The Language of Cancer

Community Manager
Community Manager
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By Tim Baker

My recent cancer memoir Patting The Shark was written as part of a creative writing PhD at Griffith University. The book forms what’s called the creative component of my PhD and now it’s done, I’ve turned my attention to the academic component, the Exegesis.

This is meant to be a learned, fully referenced, academic paper, that contributes in some meaningful way to the pool of human knowledge to be deemed PhD worthy.

Mine is entitled, “Towards a New Language of Cancer,” based on a wide reading of cancer memoirs and other cancer literature and my own experience as a cancer patient. Specifically, I’m interested in the way the language that is used in our discussion of cancer might contribute to or alleviate the distress of those of us living with cancer. As a writer, I believe passionately that words and language matter and hold the potential to help or harm people at their most vulnerable.

When we are diagnosed with cancer, I think we become hyper-sensitive to language. When my oncologist told me men can live with advanced prostate cancer for “years and years,” my mind quickly calculated that “years” had to mean at least two and so “years and years” was a guarantee that I had at least four years to live. When he repeated this for emphasis and expanded it to, “years and years and years,” I quickly took this as a rock-solid promise that I had at least six years to live.

When I was getting an MRI and the technician commended me afterwards for lying so still, he told me, “They are nice clear scans.” Of course, technicians aren’t allowed to report the results of scans, that is for a medical specialist to interpret and deliver. But I took this as his own sly code that I had nothing to worry about.  Of course, I was spectacularly wrong about this.

In our desperation, we will cling to anything and shape the things people say to us to offer hope. At the same time, we (or at least I) can be easily knocked off centre by some casually insensitive remark.

I’m not a fan of “battle” language around cancer, the war on cancer, medical treatments as ammunition, the fact that anyone who dies of cancer, it’s assumed, does so after a “battle”. And I find “fuck cancer” memes on social media particularly unhelpful, asking you to copy and paste declarations that cancer patients are “never the same after chemo”, as a misguided show of support for someone living with cancer. Did anyone ask a cancer patient if this was helpful?

And there’s another example. Do you prefer to be a called a “cancer patient,” a “cancer survivor” or the chirpier “thriver”, or the more neutral “person living with cancer”? Or doesn’t it matter to you? Personally, I’m someone living with cancer. It’s not who I am, the totality of my identity, but rather an experience I am moving through.                 

After my diagnosis I was given a pamphlet on “understanding prostate cancer”, which offered the helpful advice, “Get the most out of life by playing with your grandchildren”. My children were nine and 13 at the time. It explained some of the impacts of hormone therapy and assured me, “loss of body hair doesn’t make you any less of a man”. The very next sub-heading, with no apparent irony, was “Breast Swelling and Sensitivity”.

I’m also no fan of cancer being used as a metaphor for every dark and insidious force in society. Self-interested media moguls are not a cancer on democracy, they are acting deliberately, in a carefully calculated way to undermine the public good for their own benefit. They share nothing in common with cancer.

One of the most refreshing depictions of cancer came from noted cancer survivor Ian Gawler during one of his residential retreats at the Yarra Valley Living Centre. “Cancer cells are just dumb cells that don’t know when to stop dividing,” he told us, almost flippantly, with an air of contempt for their stupidity. He compared them to a key getting stuck on a computer keyboard and repeating itself over and over. There was an odd comfort in this, a sense that cancer didn’t represent such a formidable foe, that it isn’t some dark and sinister force intent on destroying life, but rather a mindless biological glitch.

Anthropomorphism is the word we use for attributing human characteristics to animals. So, what’s the word for giving human characteristics to random genetic mutations?

In his otherwise masterly work, “The Emperor of All Maladies – a biography of cancer,” author Siddhartha Muhkerhjee does tend to dial up the drama in a way which seems designed to escalate the distress and dread of cancer patients:

“Cancer is an expansionist disease; it invades through tissues, sets up colonies in hostile landscapes, seeking ‘sanctuary’ in one organ and then immigrating to another. It lives desperately, inventively, fiercely, territorially, cannily, and defensively – at times, as if teaching us how to survive. To confront cancer is to encounter a parallel species, one perhaps more adapted to survival than even we are.”

Muhkerjee won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction for “The Emperor of All Maladies” and it does provide a meticulously researched history of cancer and its treatment, so who am I to criticise? Well, I guess I’m just someone who’s lived with advanced cancer for seven and a half years, standing in front of a Pulitzer Prize winning author, saying this isn’t helpful.  

But don’t just take my word for it. The former director of the National Cancer Institute in the US, Samuel Broder, had strong views on this topic. “I do subscribe to the view that words have very powerful texts and subtexts. ‘War’ has a truly unique status, ‘war’ has a very special meaning,” he once observed. “It means putting young men and women in situations where they might get killed or grievously wounded. It’s inappropriate to retain that metaphor for a scholarly activity in these times of actual war. The NIH (National Institute of Health) is a community of scholars focused on generating knowledge to improve the public health. That’s a great activity. That’s not a war.”

About the Author


Tim Baker is an award-winning author, journalist and storyteller specialising in surfing history and culture, working across a wide variety of media from books and magazines to film, video, and theatre. Some of his most notable books include “Occy”, a national bestseller and chosen by the Australia Council as one of “50 Books You can’t Put Down” in 2008, and “The Rip Curl Story” which documents the rise of the iconic Australian surf brand to mark its 50th anniversary in 2019. Tim is a former editor of Tracks and Surfing Life magazines. He has twice won the Surfing Australia Hall of Fame Culture Award.

Tim was diagnosed with stage 4, metastatic prostate cancer in 2015 with a Gleason score 9. He was told he had just five years of reasonable health left, but seven years on, at 57, he’s still surfing, writing, and enjoying being a dad. His latest book, Patting The Shark, also documents his cancer journey and will be published in August. Tim will be sharing weekly insights into his journey to help other men who have also been impacted by prostate cancer.

Help is Available

Prostate Cancer Specialist Telenursing Service

If your life has been impacted by prostate cancer, our Specialist Telenursing Service is available to help. If you would like to reach out to the PCFA Prostate Cancer Specialist Telenurse Service for any questions you have about your prostate cancer experience, please phone 1800 22 00 99 Monday - Friday 9am - 5pm, Wednesday 10am-8pm (AEDT).

Prostate Cancer Support Groups

PCFA is proud to have a national network of affiliated support groups in each state and territory of Australia consisting of men and women who have a passion for assisting others who encounter prostate cancer. This network is made up of over 170 affiliated groups who meet locally to provide one-to-one support, giving a vision of life and hope after treatment. Call us on 1800 22 00 99 to find your local group.

MatesCONNECT Telephone-based peer support

MatesCONNECT is a telephone-based peer support program for men affected by prostate cancer. If you’ve recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer, our MatesCONNECT service can connect you to a trained volunteer who understands what you’re going through. All of our volunteers have been through prostate cancer. Simply call us on 1800 22 00 99 to be connected with a volunteer.

Newly diagnosed? or need to find more information? Access the PCFA resources here.

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