Like many diseases, cancer has its own special language. It’s one of the first things I learned after I was diagnosed with breast cancer back in 2011. Well, actually, I learned it at the exact same time.
“Your biopsy results came back,” the radiologist told me over the phone. “They’re all positive.”
“Oh thank God,” I said, relief washing over me. A nanosecond later, the relief was gone. Apparently, positive is not positive in the world of cancer. Positive is awful. Negative results are what you want.
What else do you want? “Unremarkable” body parts, especially if those body parts have just been scanned by CT or PET or MRI. My uterus is unremarkable according to my scans, which I at first thought was a snide jab from some lab tech until my doctor explained it just meant there was no sign of cancer.
So apparently cancer isn’t just positive, it’s also remarkable. That’s not confusing at all.
Whether it’s topsy-turvy meanings for words like positive, negative or progression (another bad thing in Cancerland), stilted phrases like “poor outcome” or “end-of-life event” when referring to death, or the murky, quirky alphabet soup of medical-speak — “You have ER+ PR+ HER-2/neu negative invasive lobular carcinoma, or ILC. Any questions?” — most cancer patients have run up against a “lost-in-translation” moment with their doctors. I’m not talking about patients who speak a different language (although this can certainly up the confusion). Or the shell shock that happens as soon as somebody in a white coat drops the C-bomb, that thing where time stands still and you suddenly turn into a patient version of that old "Far Side" cartoon “What dogs hear”: Blah blah blah cancer blah blah blah blah cancer blah blah blah.
I’m talking about leaving a surgeon's or oncologist’s office with absolutely no clue as to what’s going on with your body or what they’re going to do about it. If your doctor uses euphemisms like “neoplasm” or “malignancy” to explain your diagnosis, you might not even know you have cancer.