Illness and the English Language – A Guest Post

The following essay, by Shoshana Ciment, is a must-read for anyone who has ever had to deal with a new world filled with new vocabulary. While I might be a bit close to the source here, I think this powerful essay speaks to others as well.

 You can follow Shoshy on twitter @ShoshanaCiment and Facebook


“Cancer” is a part of the daily vocabulary at my house. Some families introduce dictionary words of the day in an effort to color the vocabularies of their households. My family has medical terms. They pop up in conversations as commonly as words like “chores” or “homework.” We don’t try to cover them up with false names or platitudes. We spit cancer out like a watermelon seed, firmly and carefully articulated.

“Mastectomy” was a big addition. I remember when I learned that word because I googled it and couldn’t sleep for a week. Soon, words like “Trileptal” and “craniotomy” also joined the ranks of our ever-growing “family vocabulary.”

Translation: my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014. One year later, my brother had a seizure and shortly after was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He was 8.

Accepting someone in your family has cancer, like the disease itself, comes in stages. And each stage comes with new definitions of terms you thought you once knew.

We all know what “shock” is. But “shock” took on a new meaning to my family and me when it was associated with the possibility of invasive breast cancer. “Shock” went from a word describing the Oscar outcomes to a word that denoted a sudden, irreversible change in our ordinary lives.

Even a simple word like “dinner” took on a new meaning for us. Because in the throes of hospital stays and recoveries, dinner didn’t mean home cooked meals from Mom. Dinner was foil-covered, pre-prepared ziti with a side of cold soup. “Dinner” was the way my community expressed their concern and support for my family when they were not able to do anything else.

I sometimes think my family should write their own “Dictionary for the Afflicted” to comfort those who feel alone in this process of learning new, uncomfortable words. We alone know that “grueling” reaches a whole new level when it is associated with a ten-hour surgery to extract a brain tumor, and that “waiting,” a word usually associated with boredom, is in fact the most painful word in the English language.

I guess my family encapsulates perfectly the ever-changing nature of the English language. Words have different meanings to different people. For some, “benign” might be a textbook term but for us, it’s a real part of our daily lives. And only we understand how “positive” can actually be “negative” when it is associated with oncology.

The new words and meaning of words that we learned flowed seamlessly into our daily dialogue. We learned to eliminate the stigma of illness, not for some noble cause or higher ground, but for ourselves. We did it out of necessity. We needed to be open with each other to create a ground for humor and lightness in a state that was anything but that.

And it worked. My mother’s daily reminders for my brother to take his tumor medication usually came out in the same breath as her reminder to the rest of us to eat our breakfasts. In our family, “Trileptal” and “Diazepam” were as common as “orange juice” and “cornflakes,” and my brother appeared all the more normal for it.

We spoke about the hard things, like scars and reconstruction. But we also spoke about the good things. For a kid recovering from a brain tumor, Disney World lived up to its name as the happiest place on Earth, a perfect foil to the hospitals and doctors’ offices.

Even the little things were exciting. Never underestimate the power of a hand-knit hat for a bedridden kid who is concealing a scar.

During this time, I liked to think that every addition into our dictionary was a step towards recovery, and in a way, a step closer to normalcy. That in some way, codifying these new words and meanings would help my family make sense of our predicament. Every question would be easily located in an index. We would never be at a loss for words.

But the process of dealing with familial illness doesn’t work out as neatly as I had hoped. There is no mathematical equation for achieving equilibrium or returning to “the good old days.” You learn as you go, redefining and sharpening terms to fit your new vocabulary.

People used to marvel at my family’s ability to move on, as if we were expected to retreat into our hospital wards and wallow for weeks. But we chose to define the words that were thrown at us instead of allowing them to define us.

My family was lucky. Cancer, I guess, didn’t win this time, and its versatility surely faded as we threw the word around with no reverence, equating it with all the other nouns in the dictionary. Although we had lived it, we didn’t fear it.

Despite all of the pain, getting through illness has its upsides too.

Some words, like victory, become even sweeter.


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4 replies

  1. Couldn’t love this anymore

    Deena S Borzak 561-714-8173


  2. Words that leave us speechless.


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