The Power of Words
Last updated: November 2023
As a family we’ve always been a pretty positive bunch. Growing up, our house was always one filled with laughter and jokes, sarcasm and satire. No one was exempt from jokes being made about them. If you had done something stupid, you best be prepared to be mocked, ridiculed, and have a few gags made at your expense. During my teenage years, this was one of the most annoying things about my family. But now, I realize that this gave me the positive outlook I have today. It also gave me a novel way of coping with the challenges that life throws at us.
Making fun of family members or trying to find humor in even the darkest of situations was, for us, a means of coping. To quote a phrase that my parents recited all throughout my childhood: 'Life is tough enough without making it even more difficult with a negative attitude.' But when cancer came into our lives, that philosophy, our family motto, was put to the extreme test.
Words and Emotions
As a professional linguist, I’m a geek when it comes to words. I love a bad pun. I laugh too hard at bad jokes and wordplay–something I do daily for my career as a copywriter–is, in my opinion, one of life’s joys. But more than just facilitating humor and keeping me in a job, words are powerful. Words can change how we view things. Words can change how we feel instantaneously.
Think of a word you hate. A common example is the word moist. A lot of people hate this word, and just saying it can make someone’s skin crawl. When you think about it, it’s surprising how much emotion one word can evoke. That’s because the meaning we attach to words is based on our emotions and experiences of that word.
The C Word
Before cancer came into my life, hearing the word cancer didn’t really register in my head. I had no personal experience with cancer. I could watch a movie about someone with cancer and feel empathy for the character. But it didn’t hit home or make emotions rise like some other words did. Now, when I hear the C word, I have so many more personal experiences and memories attached to it. Surprisingly, both good and bad feelings and thoughts come to mind when I hear this word. And that’s because there have been both good and bad experiences caused by cancer.
Patient, Victim, or Survivor?
Choosing the right words in some situations can be difficult. If you’ve got cancer, should you describe yourself as a cancer victim, patient, or survivor? Each of these descriptions changes how we view the person and the disease. A victim makes us feel sorry, powerless and passive. A patient brings forth medical imagery, a person undergoing treatment. A survivor evokes a powerful person, someone who is valiantly battling or has overcome their diagnosis. The way we view ourselves and the way we describe ourselves creates our reality. It’s kind of like a placebo that uses words instead of pills. The power of this placebo effect is something that should not be underestimated. It really can change our internal state, our outlook and our attitude!
A new member of the family, well sort of…
When my mom, Shirley, went through her life-saving cancer surgeries, she eventually ended up as an ostomate. A member of a select club. Part of a group that have gone through the same surgery and who have a bag instead of a bladder. Now, it could be very easy to associate the bag with negativity. I mean, no one would choose for this surgery if it wasn't absolutely necessary. And getting to grips with a urostomy comes with many challenges, trials and tribulations. But in good ol’ Norris family style, this situation was changed with words and a little bit of humor.
Instead of allowing her new bag to be a constant reminder of something negative, my mom changed up the situation. We welcomed “Winnie” into our lives. My mom actually named her bag and gave it a personality. When she has a leak, it's not Shirley that has an issue, instead it's Winnie’s fault. This may seem comical, but it gets even weirder. We now accept Winnie as an extra member of the family. Frequently, I even ask how Winnie's doing?! And Winnie is mentioned by friends of my mom and other family members as if she’s real and can give a response.
This anthropomorphized pee bag is now a member of our family. We talk about her as if she's really human. It’s something I never expected, but it makes me realize how lucky I am to have grown up in a house where positivity, jokes and just a little bit of sarcasm were the default for bad situations. Small changes to how we describe things can have huge effects. That's why we should never underestimate the power of words and what they can do…
Has cancer impacted your mood during the holidays?