The power of words in cancer care

Some goods words on terminology, and how the technical words oncologists use can be perceived by patients. Examples:

On one clinic day, I recall seeing a woman in her 60s with ovarian cancer. She had recurred despite treatment. I went in alone, talked with her, examined her, and then presented her to Paul.

“So, what do you think we should do now?” he asked.

“Well, since she failed this regimen, I think she needs to start on a new salvage treatment. What about a combination?” I recalled saying. Paul’s expression changed, and I still remember it like it was yesterday. He looked at me kindly, but with a degree of exasperation.

“Don–if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that people do not fail chemotherapy. The chemotherapy didn’t work, but no one failed; she didn’t and I didn’t. And, we don’t salvage people. Salvage is what you do with scrap metal and trash.”

I remembered being taken aback by this, primarily because I felt he was criticizing the common language of oncologists. “Salvage” and “failure on treatment” were words and phrases I had heard as a medical resident, and they were phrases used everywhere in oncology. 

I don’t recall the ‘failure’ word being used, but salvage chemotherapy was the term used post-relapse – and I didn’t feel like scrap metal or trash. May be in how these words are delivered, and of course we all react differently. Useful reminder of the power of words and need to be sensitive to how they can be received.

The power of words in cancer care.


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