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Guidelines for writing about cancer

Guidelines for writing about cancer

The following guidelines have been developed to assist media in reporting about cancer in a sensitive and responsible way.

Cancer is one of the greatest health burdens faced by Australians. We know that 1 in 2 Australian men and 1 in 3 Australian women will be diagnosed with cancer by the age of 85. Unsurprisingly, cancer is  increasingly reported on in Australian media. The Cancer Institute NSW has provided the following guidelines to assist media reporting on cancer to provide sensitive coverage, using language that is supportive of people living with cancer.

The guidelines also offer opportunities for media to promote cancer screening and prevention support initiatives.

These guidelines have been deeveloped in consultation with people with cancer, their families and clinicians practising in NSW.

Cancer language

Much of the current vernacular surrounding cancer can be confronting, which may inadvertently label, stigmatise or misinform audiences about the cancer journey. The Cancer Institute NSW has amended its use of certain terminology and encourages people writing about, or reporting on, cancer to do the same.

Cancer patients vs People with cancer

Cancer is a personal experience. Each diagnosis is different and every cancer journey is unique. A cancer diagnosis does not transform a 'person' to a 'patient' - many people with cancer are surviving and living productive lives, with treatment being an intermittent occurrence. The use of the term 'cancer patient' is only appropriate in relation to treatment that they are currently undergoing. Otherwise 'people/person with cancer' is the preferred descriptor.

Battle language vs Cancer journey

Most reporting of personal stories on people with cancer refers to their 'fight' with cancer. This has been a common way to report on cancer since President Nixon declared 'war on cancer' in 1971. Cancer is not a win/lose situation, and to imply there is a loser or fight to be won or lost is not an accurate or fair analogy.

Many people with cancer and their loved ones have written about the impact of battle language when writing about cancer. You can read their words at The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, National Public Radio, or the Sydney Morning Herald

It is recommended that this language be avoided. Instead we discuss a person's cancer diagnosis, cancer journey, cancer experience, or that a person has died from a certain cancer.

Cancer vs Cancers

The word cancer refers to a class of diseases characterised by uncontrollable division of abnormal cells. Each of these diseases or cancers is unique in terms of cause, presentation, incidence and mortality rates and treatment. Some cancers take the form of chronic diseases, which people live with and may receive ongoing treatment for, rather than die from, while others continue to have higher mortality rates.

'Cancer' may be used as a general term for issues that pertain to all cancers while 'cancers' should be used when referring to a number of various diseases e.g. Some cancers can be detected through an organised screening program. 

Don't use:
Patient (unless you're talking about a hospital or clinical situation).
Cancer victim.
Cancer sufferer.
People battling cancer; e.g. died following a long battle with cancer.
People struggling with cancer; e.g. died following a long struggle with cancer.
All clear (as each cancer is different and each person's recovery time will vary, it is best to avoid this phrase).
People with cancer.
People living with cancer.
People affected by cancer.
People living with and after cancer.
People living with and beyond cancer.
People getting on with life despite cancer.
People with a cancer experience.
People whose lives have been changed by cancer.
People whose lives have been touched by cancer.
Carers/people who look after someone with cancer.

Complex terminology

Much of the language around cancer, cancer research and cancer treatment consists of complex terminology. To assist in providing clear information to your audience please see the Cancer Institute NSW's Glossary

Positive messaging

When writing about the following cancers please note that by including the linked information, media have the opportunity to help improve outcomes for these cancers by offering a positive course of action for their audiences to take.

  • Bowel cancer - People over fifty years of age should screen for bowel cancer every two years. Ask your GP or pharmacist about bowel screening.
  • Breast cancer - It is recommended women aged 50 to 74 have a free screening mammogram every two years for the early detection of breast cancer. Call 13 20 50 to book an appointment through the BreastScreen program (breastscreen.nsw.gov.au). 
  • Cervical cancer - Pap tests can prevent 90% of cervical cancers. Women aged 18 to 70 should have regular Pap tests, even if they have had the cervical cancer vaccine. Talk to your GP.
  • Lung cancer - People who have a cough that lasts longer than three weeks, a cough that changes over time or who cough up blood should ask their GP for a chest x-ray.

Lifestyle/risk factors

  • Tobacco:  When reporting on tobacco we encourage all media to provide details of Quitline NSW on 13 78 48 or www.icanquit.com.au to offer support.
  • Sun:  When reporting on high temperatures or outdoor events we encourage media to reinforce the need to protect from UV through shade, sunscreen and protective clothing, and link to cancerinstitute.org.au/skin-cancer

Resources for Media

The Cancer Institute NSW regularly provides up-to-date, cancer related news items through the News and Information page for use by media. We also offer a suite of resources to help support media writing about cancer, including: