I just haven’t been able to stop thinking about the coverage of Chadwick Boseman’s passing. Reference after reference to his “battle” with cancer, to “losing his battle” with cancer, to “suffering in silence”, etc.
Part of me understands why someone might use this kind of language. I have been working in the cancer community for nearly 17 years and there was a learning curve for me too (and for CAC as an organization). With each day and each encounter, my understanding grew as did my appreciation for the uniqueness of each person and their experience. To be honest, that growth never stops. I can also appreciate how language is limiting and the people—formally or informally—writing and reflecting on Mr. Boseman’s choice and his story are mostly just trying, with the best of intentions, to find a way to convey information and understand somehow what he went through.
What gets lost though is how that language sounds to people having the actual lived experience or people loving someone going through that lived experience. Some people may very well consider their cancer diagnosis and treatment a battle to be won, and that is absolutely valid. The challenge is when we assume that is how everyone sees it or that those words motivate everyone the same way. Beyond that, there is complexity in framing the experience as a battle, which can then create a situation where someone who passes away has lost said battle. But, they didn’t lose. That is like saying they failed. They didn’t fail. They lived. Whether it was days, weeks, months or years. And, from my perspective, and hearing directly from people with cancer over the years, framing it as losing insults all the living they did.
CAC is focused on helping people find their path and take control where they can, especially of their own story. So let’s focus on how you can proactively set boundaries and productively express your preferences to coworkers, loved ones, medical professionals or anyone else making assumptions about your experience. For example:
Your coworker says: “I so admire how you are battling your cancer. I think that kind of fighting spirit is so critical to defeating it.”
Possible Response 1:“Thank you for appreciating how challenging it can be to balance everything I have going on. I can understand why you think that mindset and attitude are so important to navigating cancer, life and work. I do want to share that while for some people the battle language is very inspiring, for me, it actually is not so I’d be grateful if we could talk about my experience using less loaded words.” From here you can provide guidance on language that is ok for you, or other direction to make future conversations more comfortable for both of you.
Possible Response 2:“Thank you for appreciating how challenging it can be to balance everything I have going on. While I have you, the budget recommendations you provided need to be tweaked slightly. Could we set up a meeting to further discuss?”
In the first response, the person is much more direct, taking a moment to make it teachable and creating an opening that might require being comfortable with further conversation. That is not going to work for everyone, but is an option. In the second example, I utilized a technique we call “the Swivel”—acknowledging the comment and then redirecting the conversation to a more comfortable topic. There is no right option, it will likely depend on many factors—your relationship with the person in question, your personality, your mood in the moment, etc. What both do is offer you the chance to reshape the dialogue in a way that works better for you.
For more on managing communications at work and using the swivel:
- Sharing the News
- ”The Swivel”
- ”The Swivel” In Interviews
- Addressing Comments at Work: From the Well-Intended to Outright Insensitive
- How to Address Awkward or Insensitive Comments at Work (Video)
- When a Coworker Has Cancer: What to Say
- Supporting a Coworker with Cancer
- When Your Boss Has Cancer
- Manager’s Kit
- How HR Can Support Employees with Serious Illnesses