12 Steps to Learning the Strange Language of Cancer

by GregP_WN

How many of you have ever wanted to learn a foreign language? Like, really wanted to, versus being forced to if you wanted to graduate? Well, the good news is you still can, and it may not be as hard as you thought. There’s a great post over at The Tim Ferris Experiment by Benny Lewis that tells you how.

Benny Wall

Benny Lewis; Great Wall of China not included!

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Unfortunately, we’ve all had to spend a lot of our time learning a foreign language of a different kind: Cancer. Yes, learning to “speak cancer” is like learning a foreign language. A cancer diagnosis can make you feel like a stranger in a strange land, with new routines, rituals, priorities and words to learn, and no Rosetta Stone program or smartphone app to help you along.

Do You Understand

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But like any other language, the important thing about learning to speak cancer is figuring out what you do and don’t have to learn. Using Lewis’s post as a guide, let’s break it down into a few easy steps.

#1 – Learn the right words
There are a LOT of terms to learn with cancer. But here’s the thing: You don’t need to know them all. As Lewis points out, 20% of the time and effort you spend on learning new vocabulary terms could lead you to 80% comprehension in the language you’re trying to learn. I.e., a small core of words makes up the bulk of the language. Something similar happens with cancer: Once you dig into learning about key cancer terms, you’ll find a lot of overlap and similarities across different cancer types. Once your recognize this, it will give you a good base for “speaking cancer.” Work with your doctors to figure out what these key terms are.

#2 – Learn cognates
Cognates are basically words that share similar meanings or common origins. When learning a language, they’re the words you’re pleasantly surprised you already know or recognize, or words that have been “borrowed” across languages. Even though cancer-speak tends heavily towards medical language, look for familiar words, roots, or prefixes for clues (e.g., malignant = malign = bad influence).

#3 – Interact in the language daily
Basically, learn by doing. You can live in a foreign country, but you’ll never learn that country’s language if you don’t immerse yourself in it every day. “Speaking Cancer” is the same way. You don’t have to live it and breathe it 24-7, but you do need to go to cancer support websites, read articles, listen to webcasts, and do some work to figure out what all those terms mean in context.

#4 – Daily spoken practice
Lewis recommends Skyping native language speakers every day; while that may not be necessary for you, the idea is a good one. Talk to your doctors and ask questions, and talk to others who’ve been through it.

#5 – Save your money—the best resources are free
Basically, don’t rush out to drop tons of money on books about cancer. There are great resources online, like The American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, and Cancer.net that offer patient-friendly information and definitions. If you’re more of a traditional, curl-up-in-bed-with-a-book type, they may also have recommendations for books you can track down in the library. And don’t forget to ask your doctors and nurses for recommendations, too! There's no better place to learn than by talking with someone who's been there, done that, like a current cancer survivor or patient. 

Nci Dictionary Of Terms

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#6 – Adults are better language learners than kids
Ok, this is debatable…but you’ve probably heard before that the best way to learn a new language is to do it when you’re young and your mind hasn’t been stuffed with years of bills, stress, politics, and similar nonsense! But Lewis points out that studies have shown the difference isn’t age, but available free time and the will to learn. In other words, yes, you can learn the language…you just have to force yourself to make time.

#7 – Use mnemonics
Many people try to learn by just repeating information over and over and over. There’s something to be said for repetition, but some words may not come easily, no matter how many times you repeat it. So instead, try using clever word tricks or stories—mnemonics—to help with word association. Remember “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas” to learn the planets (back when Pluto was a planet)? It may not work for you, but give it a try!

#8 – Embrace mistakes
Listen, you’re not perfect; no one is. You didn’t spend years in medical school learning every cancer term in the book. And even if you did, you’d still forget something sometimes. Lewis has a great point about languages: You never 100% learn the language; you just become accustomed to using it. The more you use it, the better you are at it. And when you make a mistake or confuse something, see that as a learning opportunity.

#9 – What are your SMART goals?
If you’ve worked an office job anytime in the last few decades, you’ve probably sat down to hammer out some SMART goals—which stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. The purpose of SMART Goals are to give yourself realistic goals that you can see and accomplish in a given time and that will actually make a difference in your life. In the case of learning the language of cancer, ask yourself: What are the specifics of what you want to learn? How will you know if you’ve succeeded? Are your goals attainable? Are they relevant to you and your journey? And how long will it to take you to achieve these goals; is your timing realistic?

Smartgoals

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#10 – Jump from conversational language to mastery
How will you know if you’re a master at the language of cancer? By practicing a lot, speaking a lot, and reading more. It’s a lot harder to quantify a mastery of “cancer” than, say, a mastery in Spanish. But you’ll never know unless you keep trying.

#11 – Learn to sound more native
No, you don’t have to sound like a doctor. But the more you converse with other patients and with your doctors and nurses, the more comfortable you’ll be speaking cancer.

And last but not least…

#12 – Become a polyglot
A polyglot is someone who speaks multiple languages. You could argue that “cancer” isn’t a real language, but the way it pervades every aspect of life and bombards patients with new words and ideas suggests otherwise. So instead of being overwhelmed by this strange new world, embrace it instead. Make it a new aspect of your life that that enriches you, but never diminishes you.

Once you dig into learning about key cancer terms, you’ll find a lot of overlap and similarities across different cancer types.

You don’t have to live and breathe cancer 24-7, but you do need to go to cancer websites, read articles, listen to webcasts, and do some work to hear what all these terms mean in context. You can also take a look at the list of Cancer Acronyms put together by the WhatNext Community.  It's a list of most of the acronyms you will here as you start to navigate through your diagnosis and treatment. 

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