Cancer in the media

Please indulge me while I have a little rant. Have you seen the latest Macmillan television advert? The one where forlorn looking people are falling and kind looking nurses are picking them up. If not you can watch it here:

I don’t know if it is just me, but I find this advert extremely patronising and presumptive. It is somehow portraying people with a cancer diagnosis as weak, which from my experience couldn’t be any further from reality. Some of the strongest, most vivacious people I know have cancer.

This brings me onto the language used by the media and charities when referring to cancer. It is always “fight”, “battle”, “warrior” or “brave”. These are words used to describe wars and soldiers and not in my opinion appropriate to describe a condition that will affect one in three of us at some point in our lives. When someone goes on to die from their cancer or as the media would put it “lose their battle” does this mean that they failed? In my mind this somehow lays blame with the patient and seems very unfair.

I have become much more aware of cancer in the media since my own diagnosis. In fact sometimes I feel completely surrounded and it can be rather suffocating. The most recent poster encouraging women to attend for cervical screening horrified me. If you haven’t seen it, the poster shows a cute little boy crying with the caption “my Mum missed her smear test, now I miss my Mum”. As far as I can see this is just emotional blackmail rather than helping women to make an informed choice about their own health.

The soap operas tend to portray cancer as an egocentric trip rather than a person with a health problem within their wider social context. This is illustrated recently with Brenda in Emmerdale who has just been diagnosed with a brain tumour. My first thoughts when I was diagnosed were not for myself but for my husband and my family, and how I was going to help them come to terms with what was happening to us as a whole; this is very different to how Brenda is dealing with her diagnosis by shutting her family out.

Of course cancer will always be in the media and so it should, but I think perhaps we as a society can think more carefully about how we portray it. How would I like it to be portrayed? Well, I think we need to see more normal people going about living their lives and coping with it because there is little alternative as a reflection of what is reality for most.

And when I die I will be turning in my grave if anyone says “she lost her brave fight”. I would like to be remembered as a fairly successful, fun-loving and ambitious individual, not as a loser…

29 thoughts on “Cancer in the media

  1. Hi Kate.
    The ‘battle language’ is something my husband and I have been irritated for by a long time. As you say – it suggests failure if you lose that battle. Cancer is something you experience and deal with as I happens. I have a close friend who is dying from cancer currently. He is dealing with it day by day. He has friends and family there for whenever he wants us and we too live with him day by day. We are not battling – we are just getting on with it.

  2. In the summer of 2005 a friend was diagnosed with cancer of the cheek and jaw – it was a rapid-growing one. It got nicknamed the “Bas#@rd” About a month earlier, he and his wife had discovered they were expecting triplets.

    He decided, as soon as he got the diagnosis, that he was going to see the babies, and would do whatever he could to reach that goal. The Bas#@rd wasn’t going to stop him. He had major (and pretty amazing) surgery, but it wasn’t possible to take all of the tumour out.

    The babies were born in the late autumn, 2 months early. He was in the middle of radiotherapy, but went to see them every day – the hospital gave his wife a 2-bedded side room so he could stay. He decided he wanted to see their first Christmas, and was at home just for a couple of days to see that. The Bas#@rd didn’t stop him doing that.

    In the January, I went to see him in the (brilliant) hospice where he had spent much of the last month, he couldn’t talk, but there was a photo on the wall opposite his bed, of the triplets. He was still cheerful, and making the most of things, as he had done since his diagnosis.
    I found out the next day that he had died early in the morning – right to the end he had fought it, to try and have as normal a life as possible – not brave, realistic, but wanting to do what he could.
    At the celebration of his life (funeral’s too boring a term), the church was packed.

    I wish the media would show this – but I guess a fairly ordinary life wouldn’t make a story.

    • Thank you for sharing this movingly poignant story Ann. I believe stories like this would give much more comfort and strength to those of us travelling our own cancer journeys than the over emotive things that are portrayed in the media.

  3. Hi Kate
    I replied to your tweet last night but deleted it because it felt limited and I couldn’t really say everything I wanted to. Sadly, you are right about the media but as someone who has worked in charities for years, I know that is what they and therefore the the public want. This generally results in a tension of sorts between those of us who work with people affected by whatever condition it is, and those trying to use the stories to raise awareness of issues, services or generate funds. The more emotive the story, the more effective it seems to be. I would love for that to be different but I don’t know how. Perhaps more people like you challenging it is a start?

    Regarding the Macmillan ad, it is part of the campaign – no one should face cancer alone, which was based on research that found that not everyone has support from family and friends.

    I think the ad shows how many people feel when they are first diagnosed, not necessarily about how they are coping living with cancer. On a personal note it resonates with me very strongly because it was exactly how I felt when my mum’s cancer returned. And as her carer I could not show it, so I did feel very alone. But I always coped. So whilst I know that is different from your perspective, I think there are some merits in the ad but I know it won’t feel the same for everyone.

  4. I agree with so much of what you say, Kate, but the start of that advert portrays exactly how I felt when my son was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I try to explain to medical professionals that they may have said everything that was needed, but I might not have heard anything after he word “cancer.” I agree totally about the terminology but wish professionals could empathise more with patients and carers.

  5. Absolutely agree about the Macmillan ad Kate. The “falling’ metaphor encourages people to believe they will not be able to cope. Many cancers are not a disaster because they are treatable – most breast cancers for instance. When I had bc I was distressed and needed emotional support but this not an image that would have helped me cope. Nor when my son had bad case of Hodgkins. I also dislike the breast cancer care image of a hairless woman covered in pills. Looks like a Damien Hirst not a real woman patient.
    I think there is a media trend in the UK to keep telling us we cannot cope – everything is “devastating” – you do not get this barrage in Australia or NZ for instance.
    The book Smile or Die by Barbara Ehrenriech has an interesting chapter on the subject of “everyone is supposed to be using cancer as an opportunity” nonsense. Hope your treatment goes well Kate.

  6. Perhaps the worst thing about the “Cancer as War” metaphor is that it only accepts full remission or cure as a victory. If there are any victories to be had, they should be decided by the person, not by lab results and CT millimetres. Keep on being fun-loving and successful. Keep on being you.

  7. As someone with MND, your article so resonates with my experience. Everyone I know/knew with MND are among the most positive and life-affirming people I’ve met. They don’t minimise the frustrations or the fears – but they are anything but VICTIMS, and they don’t see themselves as victims either. And yet the media usually casts us in the guise of “brave victims” battling against the odds. And sadly sometimes charities are tempted to play the same card as well, though to give it its due the MNDA has resisted the temptation. I do find your blog life-effirming. Thanks.

  8. I don’t mind people using whatever language suits them, particularly if they are the ones dealing with cancer. But what I cannot stand is ‘lost the battle’ . . . death is inevitable, so if someone dies of any other ailment, did they really lose the battle against inevitability? Nope. It’s truly a frustration to have such a negative ‘loss’ association to a person who I’m certain lived like crazy, and did their best each day. I hope it’s a term that sooner than later fades away. ~Catherine

  9. Hi Kate, another blog post that evokes a combination of nods, tuts and a couple of tears from me! I think there are some serious questions to be answered about advertising and messaging around cancer (or other serious illnesses) and personally I’m not convinced by the expectation that the general public want negativity and scare mongering.

    My Dad died in November having lived with cancer for five years. Funnily enough cancer didn’t turn him into a saint, there was no super hero costume presented to him with his terminal diagnosis. Dad set himself small goals and tried to live to accomplish them (walking my sister down the aisle and becoming a Grandad twice over). He was himself, with all the good and bad of that, throughout. I gave the eulogy at his funeral and made a point of addressing the battle metaphor:

    “Dad didn’t lose his battle, or succumb to cancer; he stoically, bravely and steadfastly lived his death as he lived his life, with courage, dignity and a concern for others”.

    Kate your approach to life is completely inspiring, because you share your experience with us all and we can relate to it and I suspect in no small part the because you give us all hope that if we found ourselves in a similar position we may muster an eggcup full of your courage and positivity. We wouldn’t all turn into battle monsters instantly, but we would cope and your experience reassures us of that. Thank you for sharing it.

    • Thank you for such a thoughful response to my little rant George. I too find your blog very interesting and thought provoking reading. Coping is all any of us can aspire to in this situation and I try my best to achieve this day by day… xx

  10. Hi,

    My husband has just been diagnosed with cancer and the Macmillan advert raises a real tension for us. On the one hand, it does reflect exactly how we felt when first told, on the other we have to turn it off now every time it comes on because we don’t want to be constantly reminded of those feelings of shock and helplessness.

    As someone involved in fundraising, I understand the need for the emotive story in campaign, but it doesn’t help those living with cancer and dealing with ups and downs on a daily basis to have a picture of ‘devastation’ pushed at them every evening. Apart from which – there’s no Macmillan Nurse handy to catch me or my husband! So it’s BBC watching in our house from now on!

    • I feel exactly the same about the advert June. I’m not sure it helps cancer patients to come to terms with what is happening and like you say reminds us of those horrible initial feelings. Love to you and your husband xx

  11. Its a whole different experience if you have children to leave behind Kate….the advert is genuinely how you feel. Its one reason I don’ t like this constant barrage of doctors with their ‘I love the LCP’ very much ….your maternal instincts are to keep your family with you – and quite genuinely, if we’d been offered family euthenasia on the day my first husband was diagnosed, we’d have rolled up our sleeves on the spot! MacMillan focus on ‘living with cancer’…and their ads do reflect very well the stages you go through on that pathway …they fight more for the rights of patients AND PREVENTION AND EARLY DIAGNOSIS…. Marie Curie seem to have invested all of their time on the ‘death’ aspect with this LCP..let’s face it , once you’re unconcious, you’re gone is a matter of an hour if you’re in the right hospice -its not the most difficult part to cope with.
    I think your experience is probably atypical…being in healthcare yourself…plus you have media attention to give you a bit of a lift…..but most ordinary people do feel exactly the way the MacM adverts portray.

    I found someone else after a few years on my own and had another 2 kiddies….most people do eventually….but none of the charities show that bit – I guess that would be too realistic?

  12. My wife died of cancer and we both hated the battle metaphor almost as much as all the shallow media stories about risk factors that imply those with cancer are somehow to blame. She threw the Macmillan nurses out of our house because they were treating her like a victim and trying to run her life. In between treatments all she wanted was to live her normal life, spend time with our daughters and plan the future for those she loved. She even tried to pick a new wife for me, at which point I told her, laughing, that she had reached the limits of her authority. There was a lot of laughing and a lot of getting the best out of the life she had left. I miss her like hell but I just cannot see her as a loser. Her view was that it can happen to anyone and it had happened to her. She dealt with it womanfully and with both dignity and humour. I respect your approach immensely. Good luck and keep smiling.

  13. I am so glad to know that it’s not just me. Thank you so much for writing about this Kate. My boyfriend came into the lounge right after I had seen the Macmillian ad on t.v and he asked me if I had just seen the titanic sinking. No I hadn’t but I had seen a re-enactment of some really painful memories in a place I would have least expected it.
    Both my parents died from cancer. During the last 6 months of my mother’s life, as the cancer spread to her spinal cord and her brain, she began a slow process into full paralysis. It started with falls – exactly like the ones in the ad – and progressed to a wobbly walk, a wheelchair and finally confinement to a hospital bed in our home. For those of us that have dealt with the physical limitations of the people that we love this ad felt extremely misguided and out of tune. It actually made me cry.

    And I couldn’t agree more on the language that is used when communicating about illness and even death. It’s bothered me enough that I’ve started this project to try and change it – – I think we really need to start listening to patients and those in bereavement to see what it is that they want to hear rather than following the stock standard cliches that don’t really reflect the authenticity of the situation.

    Bravo Kate for putting the spotlight on this! You are a true inspiration.

  14. Hi Kate. Until cancer affects you and your loved ones it is simply not possible to comprehend the effect it will have on you. My dad had cancer in his throat which he hsd treatment for. Several years later the cancer came back. The way he insisted on living his final months as normally as he could was an inspiration to me. He suffered terribly and I admire him so much with the way he chose to die. The media should not use the emotional blackmail angle to help cancer sufferers. Having gone through his lsst months with him I’m still in awe at his mental strength. Good wishes are being sent to you. God bless you and your family. They have a special lady who is an inspiration to all of us.

  15. Kate, I really enjoy and appreciate your writing. My husband was diagnosed with lung cancer right around the time that Lance Armstrong began his “triumphant” return from his bout with testicular cancer. He was all over the TV and his message that you just have to “live strong” to “beat” your cancer was quite devastating for me and my husband. It really does make it sound like if you “lose” your “battle” you simply didn’t try hard enough or live right or something. As a person who lives without supernatural beliefs, I have worked hard to embrace the realities of living and dying, and I agree completely with you that we will all do better if we can replace the language of conflict with simple statements of reality. Thanks for focusing on this. BTW, you’ve got company in this campaign: I saw a similar post today on KevinMD’s site:

  16. I am 31 and was diagnosed with stage IV rectal cancer 6 months ago. I do consider myself to be in a “battle”…but not against the physical side of the cancer. Instead, I have waged a war against the mental effects of the disease…the initial despair that it caused, the constant reminders every time I go to the loo, and my wife’s post-natal depression (which it contributed to). The fact that we now have a wonderful quality of life and have created many happy memories together with our newborn son means that we have already “won” that battle, in my view.

    I also hate the use of “lost his/her battle with cancer…” by the media. It certainly won’t be my fault if I die young – my cancer showed no symptoms until it was very advanced. I have no family history. I have undertaken the recommended treatments (radiotherapy + chemo) and never complained. I exercise every day and eat well, and probably have a better physique overall than when I was diagnosed. What more could I do? Everybody has to die sometime.

    Like you, I don’t hate my cancer. It’s just a part of my body, and I find it miraculous that my body functions at all in the first place, to be completely honest. It’s a miracle of evolution.

    I will be hugely offended if anyone uses the term “tragic” in relation to my life after I’m gone. I’ve had a wonderful life full of opportunity, when compared to 99% of people who have ever existed. I certainly don’t consider myself unlucky. Even since my diagnosis, I’ve been able to witness the birth of my son, renew my wedding vows (an idea I shamelessly copied from you, Kate!), develop my own business to the point that it will continue to support my family after I’m gone, and write 3 books (an autobiography, a mystery novel for my son and – most importantly – a book that debunks the Macmillan-propagated negative view of life with cancer). I feel like I’ve lived 30 years in the last 6 months.

    I think the best we can do to help our families cope with their loss is to show them that we are making the absolute best of our time, and to remain positive and in good humour (as far as possible) at all times. That’s certainly what I want my wife to tell my son about me as he grows up. I don’t want everyone carping on about how “sad” it is that I’m not there. I want them to remember the good times and laugh.

    Thanks for being such an inspiration, Kate. During the dark times straight after my diagnosis, your example kept me going.

  17. Hi, Kate got your comment on my blog thanks for that. Wanted to say also before I was diagnosed with cancer I had a benign tumour that was misdiagnosed. On the day of being diagnosed with cancer I was literally told so quick and the macmillan nurse in my experience just at the moment didn’t ask me how I felt just being told etc and basically handed her card over. My mum and I were in shock not mainly because of the cancer the fact they hardly spent anytime and at that time was rushed and felt like they didn’t care.
    That’s the only reason why I felt in my experience that advert was ironic BUT my macmillan nurses/staff in the Macmillan centre in UCLH on the other hand are wonderful and wish I had them when diagnosed with cancer in a different hospital.
    Also I think so many cancer patients are different that when cancer patients are generalised on TV it’s usually shows a certain type of person and if your a different type it must be hard to relate to.
    I sometimes suffer from depression since being told they ‘thought’ I didn’t have long to live and since then in part remission so is kinda a head f*#k but also depressed because they didn’t let me save my eggs at 21 because they thought I’d die before they saved them but the thing that annoyed me is I went to the drs & hospital so many times and misdiagnosed and if they hadn’t I would have been able to save my eggs and now I’m in part remission but can’t have kids as gone through the menopause and now 26.
    But I understand not everyone gets depressed or acts the same way as me and it be good if they gave a few different examples of cancer patients to show even people with the same cancer can react totally different to it.

  18. I agree, the whole “flight” thinkìng infuriates me…it’s in everything these days. During (unsuccessful) fertility treatment it was all about the things I did to get pregnant , be that my diet or acupunture , or stress or herbs….but those are teeny drops in the ocean in comparison to the real physiological reasons for not conceiving,. So as well as dealing with the sadness of not getting pregnant you feel like it is your fault somehow , you are “failing to conceive”. the same with cancer (I have Medulary Thyroid Cancer) I belong to a fb group which is invaluable in understanding this very rare cancer, but hells bells if I have to read again about cancer “loving ” sugar , or this supplement or eating raw or whatever I will scream….. and when my colleagues in MTC die, have they “failed” is it their fault…..there is a fine balance between being responsible for your illness and health within reason with what we have accessible but we also have a responsibility to be kind to ourselves.

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  20. This is the first time I have read your blog, I have just endured nearly 2 years of treatments for refractory Hodgkin’s ending with a donor stem cell transplant which has saved my life. I’m presently on ward 96 at Jimmy’s with a cold of all things!

    I write as I too find the Macmillan adverts absolutely awful, I wrote and complained to them. Firstly I worked in advertising straight out of uni and am aware of a practise in the advertising industry to adopt a charity and work free of charge. So these adverts just cunjour up the picture of a load of ad men in suits brainstorming or holding focus meetings. Maybe the adverts are a reflection of the carers response. Although it was not my response on diagnosis, I was very poorly I needed answers and my GP had truly let me down by refusing to accept their was anything terribly wrong. I have held onto hope from day1 despite bad scan results and seemingly scary prognosis at times, this has not been a miracle cure I’ve worked bloody hard, kept strong for my family, parents, hubby & kids who were 18months and 5 at diagnosis. At no point have I even spoken with Macmillan, I actual despise them as a charity but I feel very at odds against the cancer culture in the UK, most people have no idea about how successfully some cancers are being treated. Cancer research tag line of one day we’ll cure cancer is factually incorrect, it’s already cured in many cases.
    My biggest bug bear and I have no idea how to raise this is the lack of understanding by GP’s regarding different cancers and diagnosis. I initially went to my GP in march2011, I knew it was cancer, I was diagnosed feb 2012 after I spent 11 months bugging my gp’s to eventually request a private referral. I believe many gp’s need better training, a system of upward referral within the practice if they are failing to fix whatever problem is not being resolved and stop believing every postnatal woman is a hypochondriac who just needs placating! I wish you all the best and will continue to follow your progress. My blog is at

  21. I take slight issue with the tagline ‘Nobody should face cancer alone’. They need to add ‘have to’ into it. When I was dx’ed, I didn’t crumble or fall into despair. On the contrary I was interested to learn all the facts about melanoma (albeit it I was stage 1b then and have progressed to 3c now). I didn’t want to tell anybody, although I ended up telling my husband and boss because of the surgeries and hospital stays. It was only when I reached stage 3 I told my parents and closest friends. Even now, very few people know it metastasized. Everybody who found out second-hand will think I’m cured. I chose to deal with alone because it’s easier for me to focus. I didn’t want to deal with everyone’s sympathy and pity and emotion. I also hate the battle terminology. I’m not fighting a battle, I’m just doing what my doctors advise.

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  25. Most cancers are food borne illnesses and we would go a long way to preventing them if we persuaded the population to rule sugar out of their diet. Why therefore are Macmillan and Hope promoting the consumption of sugar with cake laden coffee mornings. This is a huge missed opportunity on their part to promote healthy eating and yet they have chosen to endorse food products that cause not only cancer but heart disease amongst others. Moderation kills and so it would seem is the Macmillan TV advert.

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