How We Speak of Each Other’s Health

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Vancouver has been unusually bound by snow and ice this winter, reminding me vividly of a couple of things. One- people who drive in Vancouver are inexperienced with snow. We just don’t get enough on a regular basis to maintain good skills. Two- we are all temporarily able-bodied, as an advocate friend of mine says.

At the beginning and end of our lives, and for some of us at other points as well, we will be dependent on others to help with our mobility and often at the simplest things- food, personal care. Snowy and icy sidewalks that were left uncleared reminded me of this as I watched people struggle and skidded about myself.

There is no us and them.

Being aware of how temporary a healthy body can be was illustrated for me in this article from the Association of Health Care Journalists. In How the Language We Use to Communicate About Disease Matters, author Liz Seegert writes about the words best used and avoided when describing people with Alzheimer’s. She acknowledges the issue of language comes up in other health areas as well- HIV and cancer immediately come to mind, but mental health isn’t far behind. Dr. Sarah Wakeman brings up the importance of avoiding stigma and shaming language when writing about people who use drugs.

People living with challenging illnesses have taken positions on this. Back in 1983, when the world knew little about AIDS and there was so much fear, people living with HIV developed the Denver Principles. It was a rejection of the labels victims and patients, and introduction of the term people with AIDS. People first; health condition second.

This has been echoed in cancer narratives. In Having Cancer is Not a Fight or Battle, Kate Granger wrote: “I would like to be remembered for the positive impact I have made on the world, for fun times and for my relationships with others, not as a loser.” Tara Baysol’s The Dreaded Battle Metaphor says:

I squirm at the suggestion that just living with my condition somehow equates me more to a fighter and warrior than anyone else. My thoughts are really a message about respecting each cancer patient or “survivor” as having their own unique cancer experience and not assuming that one label fits all of us. My point merely is that we are individuals first, not necessarily defined by our cancer.

Andre Picard critiqued the problem of using battle with its implication of winners and losers in response to a fundraising campaign for children’s health. “The way individuals respond to illness, and even the possibility of illness, is varied and complex, and even complicated … Battle is not always an apt metaphor.”

How writers say what they say matters to the direct audience and to society. Language is powerful, and we should be seeking to dignify and connect people, not alienate them. Every one of us will have health challenges in our lives at one time or another, living in these amazing yet imperfect bodies. How we best capture the intricacies of illness and health to educate and illuminate with dignity is an ongoing task. Whether we are communicating about Alzheimer’s, HIV, cancer, or another health condition, let’s always talk about multi-dimensional people first, and not just the condition.

 

Image: Wesleyman, MorgueFile

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