As anyone who has ever watched a loved one fight against it will know, cancer is a truly horrible disease. It affects both patients and their families in such a traumatic way that no-one will ever be able to look at life in quite the same way again. Even mentioning cancer is something of a taboo. Children with relatives who are fighting cancer might wonder what the frequent references to the C-word mean! A few years ago, there was even a film of the same name, based on a very popular blog by Lisa Lynch that described her experiences with terminal cancer.
Obviously, cancer is seen as far too sensitive a subject to appear in English-language teaching materials. Publishers worry that any mention of such common diseases could be upsetting, and teachers often steer clear of mentioning it for similar reasons. Yet on average around 40% of us will be diagnosed with cancer of some kind or another during our lifetimes – and many more of us will be indirectly affected by it. And contrary to popular belief, students don’t only want to talk about holidays, shopping and hobbies; they often want to describe what’s going on in their lives and talk about the people they care about – in English.
I was reminded of this the other day when one of my students left class to answer a phone call. Through the door, we could hear her talking in a very animated way and she then bounced back into the room, looking very pleased indeed. I asked if everything was OK, at which point she said “Yes, yes. Better than OK” and proceeded to try and explain her good news. With plenty of help from me, we established that her mum had been diagnosed with colon cancer last year, which meant she then had to have chemo. This had resulted in hair loss, nausea and vomiting, a feeling of being exhausted all the time and a loss of appetite. There had been days when she just wanted to give up and didn’t feel she had the energy to get through it, but she stuck with it and eventually the cancer went into remission. She’d been having regular tests and this morning had finally been given the all-clear by doctors. She’s basically now free of the disease, which explained my student’s delight!
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- Is cancer a taboo subject in your country?
- Do you know any stories of anyone who’s been given the all-clear after a health scare?
- What other subjects do you think are far too sensitive to appear in English-language teaching materials?
- Do you think it’s useful to learn language connected to potentially upsetting things? Why? / Why not?
I think, as long as the language is a means of reflection of our life, culture, way of thinking we shouldn’t try to avoid speaking about sad things in the classroom. Deseases, death and things like that are just a part of our life. And this is the reason why students who learn English should know how to express their thoughts in a proper way in such sad situations.
I totally agree Oxana. Obviously, I don;t think anyone should feel forced to speak about anything they don’t feel comfortable talking about, but it would be nice if published material took a few more risks and tried to include a bit more language connected to death, disease, and other darker topics. I think there’s a real hunger for more than just shopping, travel and hobbies!
I remember the day after 9/11, the managers and DoS telling us not to talk about it with our students, which I thought absolutely crazy.
Of course, when I went to teach my Pre-Intermediate ESOL class, the students, and especially the Muslim students, wanted to talk about nothing else. And so I ignored my managers and let them use the whole lesson to talk about their shock, grief, fears and condemnation of such an atrocity.
In terms of learning to communicate, it was an excellent lesson and because of the immediacy of the situation a lot of vocabuary was learnt, and retained.
I also had a Vietnamese student whose essay about “The Worst Day of my Life” chose to write about the US bombing of his village. He related the incident without rancour, but wanted to share his story with the class, who were both sympathetic and supportive.
From these experiences I have learnt to go where the students want to and help them express it.
Yeah, I’ve had many similar experiences over the years, Robin, including an Iraqi student whose sister and five kids were killed by a stray US bomb during the post-9/11 attack on Baghdad. It’s good to learn what you’ve learned – to let students lead when they want or need to, and to help them express themselves at such times by providing the language they are scrambling towards.Thanks for the thoughtful comment.
1. In my country, talking about cancer is a taboo subject. People affected by it as well as their families suffer in silence. You see people retreating from public life and suddenly you find out they died after a long battle with the disease. I have had members in my family dying of it. Now my father is fighting the disease. Luckily, he has a loving family who supports him in every way. I think somehow lessons about empathy, caring about the others should be included in the school curriculum . As a teacher, I’ve been often offended by some of my students who have read about cancer from books. Proud of having read a book, they told me “ You do not know what is like to suffer from cancer” Did they know what was in my soul? 2 Maybe lessons about diseases like melancholy, depression etc because people often rush to put labels like these: “ He’ s insane! She’s crazy or mad.” How could they tell? Are they doctors?
Firstly, Cris, thank you so much for such a powerful and thoughtful comment. So sorry to hear about your dad. Having seen my own dad lose his battle with the disease, my heart goes out to you and I hope your father makes a full recovery and beats the thing. Tough times all round. As for the comments of students, I guess partly you just have to put it down to the stupidity and certainty of youth. 🙂