Novartis survey shows words matter in cancer communications, finding language impacts treatment

Cancer, a word so loaded it spawned the euphemism “the big C,” is tied to a galaxy of descriptors such as warrior, victim and hero. But are they the words people living with cancer need to hear? Novartis polled patients to probe the question—and came away with evidence that language is powerful and divisive.

The Big Pharma, which sells cancer drugs such as Kisqali and Tasigna, surveyed 1,871 patients and 142 healthcare professionals in the U.S. and U.K. for its My Cancer. My Words. initiative. Working with a team of experts in medicine, patient advocacy, psychology and language, Novartis sought to understand how words impact people living with cancer. 

Novartis found cancer is most commonly associated with the words “death,” “chemo/chemotherapy” and “pain.” Asked to describe cancer through metaphors, patients chose phrases such as “time bomb” or “dark clouds.” The responses point to the fear and anxiety cancer still provokes, even after advances that have improved survival rates and moved treatment of many conditions beyond chemotherapy.

The survey also found 67% of patients, and 88% of healthcare professionals, believe language impacts the lives of people living with cancer. Patients reacted badly to the words “victim” and “sufferer,” with respectively 78% and 72% of respondents saying they negatively impact treatment choices. 

Other words were more divisive, with patients evenly split on whether “warrior” and “thriver” have a positive or negative effect. In a statement, Claire Saxton, executive vice president of patient experience at Cancer Support Community and member of the My Cancer. My Words. expert steering committee, framed the findings as evidence of the need to tailor communications to individuals. 

“One of the best things that we can do is ask people how they want to be addressed. Everyone has their own preferences of how they'd like to be addressed as a person living with cancer. Some really want to be warriors and others want to be thrivers and we really need to make sure that we leave room to help support people in their own journey with cancer,” Saxton said.

The survey suggests a person’s location provides a clue about how they want to be addressed. People in the U.K. generally reacted more negatively to the terms cancer “thriver,” “warrior” and “hero” than their peers in the U.S. Almost half, 49%, of people in the U.K. said “warrior” negatively impacts treatment choices, compared to 22% of respondents in the U.S.