Various forms of collective terms make up much of our language. We use collective nouns for animals and humans, like a flock of birds or a crowd of people. We use demonyms on a daily basis.
People who live in Auckland are called Aucklanders. People who live in Wellington are called Wellingtonians. People who live in Christchurch are called 'the people of Christchurch', a flaw that only became apparent after the earthquakes struck and we listened to the term ad infinitum in news reports. Or Cantabrians, although that's not strictly correct, is it?
The use of these keeps language tidy and simple. Otherwise, you end up with phrases like 'person who has Burkitt's Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma', which could just as easily be a single word. Which is why I've decided there needs to be one.
As far as medical diagnoses go, people with Burkitt's have drawn the short straw, as has anyone with cancer really. People with diabetes are called diabetics. People with asthma are called asthmatics. Admittedly cancerics doesn't have the same ring, but surely there's something that could work?
Given that 'Burkitt's Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma' is a mouthful in itself, and we are already a rare bunch, I figured at the very least we needed a term to unite us all. And let's be honest, it wouldn't be hard to come up with anything better than the current status quo for cancer collectives.
When it comes to people with cancer, you've got a few things you can refer to them as, and none of them are any good.
'Cancer sufferers' is a bit dark, isn't it? The term 'suffering' conjures up images of medieval torture in my head at least. Not to mention that
... it was also the blatant discomfort of many people I interacted with. suffering is a slight misrepresentation, given that although I did spent some of my time with cancer suffering (but firmly attached to a bucket rather than the rack), I also spent a great deal of it having a excessive amounts of fun and laughter in hospital, or watching TV, or showering, and none of them got the naming rights.
'Cancer patients' couldn't be any more clinical if you tried. 'Patient' makes me think of zombie movies where they talk about patient zero — it is, ironically, a little dehumanising. The incredible medical team that treated me never saw me as a patient, but rather as a person. Although 'cancer person' is back to sounding like an insult.
Really, there's not many terms for people with cancer that haven't already been infiltrated with the gross stigma and negativity which surrounds cancer as a subject, and is often inadvertently smeared onto those people who have cancer.
The fear and discomfort around a horrific, yet mundanely frequent and common disease, is probably drawn from that frequency itself. We all know someone who has died from cancer, most of us have probably seen it happen, half of us will die from it, and yet instead of that leading to a greater acceptance of the disease, it leads to greater fear that it could be us or one of our loved ones next.
It's so run-of-the-mill that we live in fear of it, instead of coming to terms with it as part of our society, for now at least. It would be like if instead of quipping about stubbing our toes, we lived in perpetual fear of who it would happen to next. Yes, it's not the same, it's hyperbolic, and everybody will have different feelings and experiences around it. But ...
For me, I know that one of the most alarming things about having cancer wasn't just when all of my leg hair fell out into my hospital bed and made the fitted sheet look like a mink rug, or when I woke up painted red after taking my own IV line out while I was on some hospital-grade fun pills, but it was also the blatant, palpable discomfort of many of the people I interacted with while I was going through treatment.
It was like I had something stuck in my teeth that they wanted to mention but weren't sure if that would be polite or rude to do so, and they were weighing it up mentally throughout the whole conversation.
They had that very same squinty, pained look on their face, fingers pressed to their chin, except this time it wasn't something in my teeth they wanted to blurt out, it was that I was riddled with tumours, and I was also missing my hair, eyebrows, eyelashes, and about 15kg, and they weren't sure if I was aware or not.
Not everyone, let me make that clear. Hospital staff are a great example of people who are so exposed to it that they've come to realise that people with cancer are the same people they were without the cancer.
Many other strangers were capable of having normal, if not verging on abnormally cordial conversation. Some people managed to slot right in the middle, behaving so normally that cancer didn't even make a feature in the conversation as the elephant in the room.
Sometimes it still happens to this day — people know me for having cancer, but they hate talking about cancer, so they have a really tough time trying to figure out what to say when we meet. I don't blame them, I would have been infinitely more uncomfortable than them had I been in their position before I experienced cancer myself.
I pass no judgement, knowing that their own experiences may affect their own feelings on the disease. But it's bloody great for people who have cancer when you treat them like people without cancer. So maybe just call them people. That's what I reckon at least.
Oh and for my fellow Burkitt's family out there, I figured out the collective term — it's burkittens.