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!
- 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?