Rethinking Cancer


A WORD is dead / When it is said, / Some say. I say it just / Begins to live / That day. Emily Dickinson

How often does a word on the page stop you? And, if it does—do you find yourself leaving the page? I do. I like to know how the word itself is defined and if my understanding of it’s meaning is what was intended.

Recently a colleague sent me a link to Julia Baird’s Op Ed piece titled Was it Cancer? Getting the Diagnosis.  Ms. Baird had often wondered, “What it would be like to have cancer… ” She didn’t expect to find out.

The word “cancer” took me off the page and to my bookshelf where my eyes settled on Terry Tempest Williams’ book—a memoir—published in 1992 titled Refuge. Why? She had turned to the Oxford English Dictionary for the exact meaning of the word cancer to learn it’s defined as “anything that frets, corrodes, corrupts, or consumes, slowly and secretly. ” For her, whose mother had been diagnosed with cancer, not only did she discover the word itself had infinite power but that patients and doctors speak about illness in profoundly different ways. “Medical language” she found out “is loaded with military metaphors: the fight, the battle, and defense strategies, which waged against our bodies can be counterproductive to healing.” She asked herself, “How can we rethink cancer?”

Both Terry Tempest Williams and Julia Baird are writers. They understand words shape our experience. It’s now 2015—two decades later. Julia finds the “brave warrior talk” that surrounds cancer does not resonate with her. While her prognosis is good she still grapples with the meaning of cancer.

How does one rethink cancer?

For Julia—in a word: “ataraxia.” Once again I leave the page for the Oxford English Dictionary. I learn,“ ‘ataraxia’ ” is a Greek term defined as freedom from distress or worry where one can find a surprising strength.”

“How did you become so calm before your surgery?” her doctor asked.

“I prayed, locked out negativity and drama and drew my family and tribe –all big hearted people—near and tried to live deliberately,” she said.

While war metaphors are often a rallying cry in popular culture, Julia Baird offers another perspective. Consider the word ataraxia and what it represents as a response to a cancer diagnosis. I say, it just may be a word to live by!

Was It Cancer? Getting the Diagnosis

– Celia Engel Bandman

(2) Comments

  1. Amelia Silver

    What a wonderfully succinct reflection. Words do have such power, and shape our experiences. The stories we tell become our belief system, our reality. So being careful and thoughtful with words and definitions also is powerful. I especially love the Dickinson quote—she knew better than anyone that words confer life and meaning. Thanks!

  2. carole wilbourn

    A word is inimitable. Thanks for making the most of the word you choose to express yourself for the good of yourself and others.

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