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Writing about cancer guidelines

A cancer diagnosis is a reminder to live as fully as possible, not a sign to bunker down.
Graham Wood, diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia (CLL)

The following guidelines have been developed to assist the media and other people writing and talking about cancer to use language supportive of people living with the disease.  

These guidelines are not intended to tell people affected by cancer how to speak about their experience. Rather, they are to help people writing about other’s experience of cancer to do so sensitively.

When discussing these issues with people in your own life who are dealing with cancer, it’s good to be open about it. Find out from them how they prefer to talk about it.

Cancer is one of the greatest health burdens faced by Australians.
We know that one in two Australian men and one in three Australian women will be diagnosed with cancer by the age of 85. 

Given these statistics, and the impact cancer and its treatment has on individuals and the health system, it is frequently discussed and reported on in the media. 

These guidelines can assist the media to report about cancer in a sensitive way, and help everyone talk about the disease.

They incorporate feedback from people with cancer, their families and health professionals in NSW; and they suggest where media can assist in improving cancer outcomes by linking to cancer screening or cancer prevention support programs. Thanks to everyone who has responded with comments and feedback.

Cancer language

Being diagnosed with cancer is a confronting time for any person, as well as for their family and friends. 

Much of the current language surrounding cancer can be equally confronting. It may inadvertently label, stigmatise or misinform audiences about living with cancer. As a result, the Cancer Institute NSW has changed how it uses certain terminology and encourages people writing about cancer to do the same.

'Cancer patients' vs 'people with cancer'

Cancer is a personal experience. Each diagnosis is different and every course of treatment and outcome is as unique as the individual affected.

A cancer diagnosis does not transform a 'person' to a 'patient'.

Many people with cancer are surviving and living productive lives, while having occasional treatment.

The use of the term 'cancer patient' is only appropriate in relation to treatment that they are currently undergoing. Otherwise, 'people/person with cancer' is the preferred descriptor.

Avoid battle language

Most reporting of people (or a person) with cancer refers to their 'fight' with cancer. We often read or hear how someone has ‘won their fight against cancer’ or they have ‘lost a long battle with cancer’.

"Cancer... it can make you lose yourself, particularly when "battle " language  inevitably casts you as only victor or vanquished."
Sharon Prichard, diagnosed with breast cancershare block quote

This has been a common way to report on cancer since President Nixon declared “war on cancer” in 1971. However, cancer is not a win/lose situation. To imply there is a loser, or a fight to be won or lost, is not an accurate or fair analogy.

Cancer is something people live with—deal with, manage, experience—and sometimes people die from the disease. Using ‘battle’ language to emphasise someone’s experience with cancer can be misguiding and insensitive.

Many people with cancer and their loved ones have written about the impact of battle language when writing about cancer.

In his New York Times article, Dana Jennings says, “…after staggering through prostate cancer and its treatment—surgery, radiation and hormone therapy—the words “fight” and “battle” make me cringe and bristle.

“I sometimes think of cancer as a long and difficult journey, a quest out of Tolkien, or a dark waltz—but never a battle. How can it be a battle when we patients are the actual battleground? We are caught in the middle, between our doctors and their potential tools of healing and the cell-devouring horde.”

Carly Weeks wrote in The Globe and Mail: “…to those touched directly by cancer, equating the illness with a war against the enemy, fighting an adversary, or suffering in order to survive, can diminish understanding of the challenges and complexities faced by patients and their families".

On National Public Radio, Leroy Sievers begged the question: “If someone was fighting cancer, but passed away, does it mean that person lost? That he or she didn't fight hard enough? That they failed? Of course not… We all just deal with it in our own ways and do the best we can on any given day".

Michael O-Reilly describes his sister who died of ovarian cancer as beautiful, kind and determined. “But I never, ever would have called her a ‘loser’.”

His Sydney Morning Herald article questions why death by cancer is so often framed in this way. 
“I would like to see no more talk of ‘losing’,” he says. “We should rather remember that every day of life lived with cancer is a victory.”

To avoid this ‘battle’ language; instead, the following could be used:

  • a person's cancer diagnosis
  • a person's cancer experience
  • a person's cancer journey (however, use with caution—some people find the use of 'journey' to be inappropriate. It is always best to check with the person/people you are writing about)
  • a person's current treatment
  • that a person has died from a certain cancer.

Of course a person’s experience with cancer is completely individual. Some people may prefer to describe their experience as a battle or a fight. This may motivate or comfort them, and that is a positive thing. These guidelines are not intended to tell people affected by cancer, how to speak about their own experience.

Cancer vs cancers

Each of these diseases or cancers is unique in terms of cause, presentation, incidence rates, treatment and outcomes. Some cancers take the form of chronic diseases, which people live with and get ongoing treatment for, rather than something they die from. There are other cancers that continue to have higher mortality rates.

It is recommended that 'cancer' be used as a general term for issues that relate to all cancers. For example:

  • Cancer begins from an abnormal cell.
  • Funding for cancer research has been increasing in Australia.

The plural 'cancers' should be used when referring to a number of various diseases. For example:

  • Some cancers can be detected through a screening program.
  • Many cancers have better outcomes if detected early. 

Some suggestions

Don't use:

Patients (unless you're talking about a hospital or clinical situation)
Cancer victims
Cancer sufferers
People battling cancer; died following a long battle with cancer
People struggling with cancer; died following a long struggle with cancer
'All clear' (as each cancer is different and each person's recovery time will vary, it is best to avoid this phrase)

Try using terms such as:

People with cancer
People living with cancer
People affected by cancer
People living with and after cancer
People living with and beyond cancer
People getting on with life despite cancer
People with a cancer experience
People whose lives have been changed by cancer
People whose lives have been touched by cancer
Carers/people who look after someone with cancer

Complex terminology

Much of the language around cancer, cancer research and cancer treatment consists of complex terminology. This includes statistical terms and concepts related to cancer rates and risk factors. 

To assist in providing clear information to your audience, please refer to the Cancer Institute NSW's Glossary

Positive messaging

"The flow-on will be that people with cancer who read such media reporting will feel less anxious about facing the future i.e. get on with treatment and enjoy life as best you can." Robin Mitchell, diagnosed with bowel cancershare block quote

When writing about the following cancers, please note that by including the linked information, media have the opportunity to help improve outcomes for people by offering a positive course of action for their readers/viewers/listeners to take.

  • Bowel cancerPeople over fifty years of age should screen for bowel cancer every two years. Ask your GP or pharmacist about bowel screening.
  • Breast cancer: It is recommended women aged 50 to 74 have a free screening mammogram every two years for the early detection of breast cancer. Call 13 20 50 to book an appointment through the BreastScreen NSW program (breastscreen.nsw.gov.au). 
  • Cervical cancerWomen aged 25 to 74 should have a Cervical Screening Test, even if they have had the HPV vaccine. Talk to your GP.
  • Lung cancerPeople who have a cough that lasts longer than three weeks, a cough that changes over time, or those who cough up blood should ask their GP for a chest x-ray.

Lifestyle/risk factors

  • Tobacco use: When reporting on tobacco, we encourage all media to provide details of the NSW Quitline on 13 78 48 or www.icanquit.com.au to offer quit support.
  • Sun protection: When reporting on high temperatures or outdoor events, we encourage media to reinforce the need to protect from ultraviolet radiation (UVR) through shade, sunscreen and protective clothing, and link to Skin cancer protection on the Cancer Institute NSW website.

Resources for media

The Cancer Institute NSW regularly provides up-to-date, cancer-related news items through the News and information page for use by media. We also offer a suite of resources to help support media writing about cancer, including: