From the moment we learn to talk, we begin to understand the power of language. The phrase 'Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me’ has never resonated with me. Bruises heal, but I think the wounds from words can cut deep and can scar forever. What we say or what we write can reveal emotional depths our faces might conceal. Used thoughtfully, words can express care and concern, they can enlighten and inspire. The badly-chosen word can derail a conversation.
It always astonished and fascinated me that we all have access to the same words, yet their meanings can be subtly changed or interpreted. And how they're used can affect us in disparate ways, particularly if we're receiving difficult information. Words used to explain or describe illness, for example, can sometimes hinder understanding or be unhelpful. They can even occasionally be hurtful, despite that being an entirely unintended consequence.
We explored these affects, and how people - both qualified and unqualified - unwittingly use the wrong phrase or saying when I hosted one of cancer charity Maggie’s creative writing workshops in their West London centre. Entitled ‘The Power of Words’ and funded by the charity’s fantastic supporters, players of People’s Postcode Lottery, I invited the participants to share their thoughts on the language habitually used when speaking about cancer. It was revelatory in showing how cancer has a language of its own - a language that can be less than helpful to those who are actually experiencing the disease. The group were honest in the discussion and generous in their approach.
People being treated for cancer are often described as 'brave'. The workshop participants universally agreed it often wasn't what they felt. Many said that hearing others being described that way, particularly in the media, sometimes made them feel inadequate. Combative words are often used in association with cancer, but they can feel disempowering to people simply trying to get through one day a time. The idea of a cancer 'battle' is lazily synonymous with going through treatment and the group explored other ways of describing it .
After his diagnosis, Danny Baker told me that he wished people would stop telling him to stay strong and fight the disease. As far as he was concerned, he was the battleground over which his cancer fight took place, well beyond his control.
The writing group agreed that some people do find fighting talk motivational and inspiring. They all thought that labelling of any kind should be used sparingly and ought to be tailored to the individual. This practical demonstration of personal choice and exploring an emotional approach to language exemplifies exactly what Maggie's does on the wider stage. Through its creative writing classes, as well as other aspects of its evidence-based programme of support, Maggie’s helps people to work out what language is helpful for them and gives them the ability to share their feelings about how certain words or phrases make them feel.
In our People’s Postcode Lottery session, I asked the group to give an example of the words they found the most useful or supportive. They included 'today', 'nurture' and 'here'. We explored overused and unhelpful phrases too. It's often (always) hard to respond when someone reveals they have a diagnosis of cancer, but a glib 'you will be fine' or 'my friend had it', expressions which can seem like the best thing to say, are often not received well by the person with cancer. Maggie’s is there for family and friends too, of course, helping anyone affected by the diagnosis to talk about it and find their way through. Understanding what not to say can be just as vital as finding the right words. And when words fail, there is often an awful lot to be said for companionable, loving silence.
Maggie’s ‘Power of Words’, the workshop has been developed for anyone living with cancer to explore ideas around positive and negative words, the role they play in an experience of cancer and how writing can help people come to terms with the emotions involved in a cancer diagnosis.
Former Blue Peter presenter Janet hosted the pilot workshop at our West London Centre on National Writing Day on June 21st. The session had such positive feedback from those who took part we have decided that the workshop will be rolled out to all of our Centres across the UK.
The workshops are backed by players of People’s Postcode Lottery. Since 2007 Maggie’s has received more than £9 million from players, a sum which plays a significant role in allowing us to provide our free programme of support designed to help people live well with cancer.