Excerpted from “Communicating Ovarian Cancer: Glimpsing the Hope,”
by Erin Moore
The Language of Despair
On first glance, the perception of ovarian cancer in the media and in the lay literature is quite dire. There is a sense of despair and of powerlessness to prevent or treat the disease. When fear is the main communication tactic about a health concern and messages resound with futility, a barrier is created between that information and taking action. It is portrayed as almost too negative and insurmountable to approach. Furthermore, because ovarian cancer is not as publicized or discussed as breast cancer for example, the fear elicited in a message is stronger since there are fewer chances to convey information.
I noticed an example of this kind of message on the red line T one day. From ovariancancerawareness.org, the focal point of the advertisement was the sentence, “Ovarian Cancer Can Strike At Any Age.” It was in bold letters and surrounded by an orange border, creating a sense of fear and dread. Something more cheerful and informative would be far more effective in keeping people’s attention.
Even in a Harvard Pilgrim Health Care bulletin (2004, please see appendix), where an article on ovarian cancer is otherwise hopeful, there is a line that instills real fear. It states: “if you have a mother, sister or daughter who has had or is currently facing ovarian cancer, your own risk might be as high as 50 percent” (p. 6). What they do not say is that a risk as high as 50 percent would only occur with a genetic mutation. Someone like a young girl whose mom died of the disease could read the article and experience intense anxiety due to lack of clarification. It is crucial that fear be broken down because it has the potential to prevent communications from making a difference.
Language is the only way we, as a culture, can make sense of our world. The language of cancer generates despair in many forms. It is commonly spoken about via military metaphors such as “she is battling cancer” or “she fought ovarian cancer with all she had and I am so proud of her!” (Oprah.com message board, July 6, 2004). These metaphors are meant to be empowering, but referring to the disease as external to the person is a Western phenomenon and de-emphasizes a holistic approach to healing. Military metaphors actually contribute to the sense of despair (instead of hope) because they create a sense of internal conflict and demand violent efforts. A cancer diagnosis is highly personal, and each woman must respond to existing metaphors in order to carve out the meaning of her unique experience.