MUM-of-two Helen Munro, 40, has had stage 4 breast cancer since 2017. Here, she says the language we use to talk about cancer can often do more harm than good.
“When I read the comments underneath my latest Instagram post, I did a double take.
“I’d written an update explaining that the tumours in my breast and lymph nodes had grown, and my latest round of chemo had failed.
“I’d also mentioned, almost in passing, that my liver and bones had remained stable. But within minutes I started getting comments saying: “Great news!” and I wondered if people had actually read what I’d written. Because it wasn’t great news at all.
“This cherry-picking of details, while side-stepping the brutal reality because people are too uncomfortable to acknowledge it, is an example of the exasperating way cancer is often discussed.
“I discovered a lump in my right breast while trying on swimming costumes in August 2017, aged just 37.
“I was devastated when I was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer the following month, and learned that the five-year survival rate is just 22 per cent.
“With secondary cancer there is no cure, and treatment is only to try to prolong my life.
“My husband Finch, 41, and I carefully broke the news to our children Lola, six, and Lupe, five, but we didn’t tell them how serious it was. We won’t share that with them until we know that I’m at the point of no return.
“When Lola told me she was going to ask the tooth fairy to get rid of my cancer, it tore me up inside.
“I gave up work as company director at our furniture and interior design business Finch London early on due to juggling hospital appointments, chemo, hair loss, weight loss, nausea, debilitating fatigue and pain, on top of keeping our busy household running.
“Cancer means a lot of uncertainty. I never know how my body will react to a new treatment, or how long I have left with my husband and children. But one thing I am certain of is that positivity isn’t going to cure me.
“I can’t wish my cancer away and yet I am constantly told to be positive and stay strong. These are convenient phrases that have become embedded in the cancer vernacular, but which mean nothing, because you can’t sugar-coat terminal illness. The messages simply offering love and support help me far more.
“I choose to be as upbeat as I can be, but I also accept it’s impossible to be like that every day.
“I know people mean well, but being expected to remain forever positive makes me feel guilty when I’m struggling. Allow me to have a down day!
“The “you’ve got this” message is a behaviour known as toxic positivity. I’d never want anyone to think I was ungrateful, but the language we use around cancer can be unhelpful at best, and harmful at worst.
“It’s often described as a “battle” being fought, the implication being if someone “loses”, it’s because they didn’t fight hard enough.
“I would do anything to be rid of cancer, but it’s not within my control.
“When I posted on my Insta account @showingstage4thedoor that my cancer had spread and then received those peppy replies, I felt irritated and upset. People had ignored the truth of my message, and reacted as if everything was tickety-boo.
“People tend to be better at listening and responding appropriately in person, but sometimes toxic positivity happens here, too.
“Many times, people have reacted with a story of a friend who had cancer and is now recovered, with the assertion I will be fine as well.
“Normally, their friend has primary cancer, which is different from secondary, like mine.
“Primary is where most funding and research goes and the survival rates are good if caught early. But secondary is like walking on quicksand – the end is always death – so telling me I’m going to “beat this” doesn’t reflect my reality.
“Last summer I nearly died after successive chemotherapies failed and friends and family had to rally round while I was in bed for months, barely able to walk to the local park.
“So although I try to remain hopeful for a miracle, I have a fair idea about how my story is going to play out.
“It’s not easy, but that’s cancer. It’s an ugly, ruthless beast and not something you can wrap up neatly with a bow.
“I’m not saying we have to sit around planning my funeral, but I’d like people to be understanding.
“If there’s bad news, don’t shy away from it. And if you’re struggling to find the right words, don’t worry! A heart emoji is enough to let me know you’re thinking of me. ”