The word ‘cancer’ is loaded with so many connotations – be they relevant or not…bald head, sunken eyes, tubes, pale skin, and fatigue in general. The person stays the same, but yet, because of an unwelcome, insidious beast growing within, they are suddenly rendered ‘vulnerable’ – more likely to succumb to other illnesses, especially infections.
Most relevant this year has been the stigmatising word ‘vulnerable’. People with cancer are ‘vulnerable’ because they have ‘underlying health conditions’… a term we’ve heard over and over again through this pandemic, mostly when describing those who have already lost their lives to COVID-19 by politicians in press conferences, by the media, and by other influencers.
But… this language is becoming corrosive. Is this now becoming a way of invalidating this suffering and loss of life from COVID-19? Does a background of an ‘underlying health condition’ make a life less valuable or more disposable? Does the loss of that life become more acceptable? Though it may not have negative intentions, the addition of this phrase can be potentially disturbing and hurtful if you happen to be amongst those vulnerable groups that have an ‘underlying health condition’. It sure doesn’t provide any reassurance to those in cancer communities. The ‘us and them’ mentality is becoming particularly corrosive because people who come under the banner of ‘vulnerable groups’ are being made to feel invisible, disposable, and perhaps even lesser than the ‘ordinary Australian’.
So let’s now take a look at what are considered ‘underlying health conditions’ that can make COVID-19 a more risky disease to catch:
Immunosuppression, previous transplant, cancer in the last 12 months
Chronic kidney failure
Chronic lung disease, asthma
Chronic liver disease
Previous strokes or dementia
Some chronic inflammatory conditions and treatments
Other primary or acquired immunodeficiency
Other severe mental health conditions
These conditions are prevalent in Australia, and everyone will be touched by at least one person with at least one of these conditions.
It’s time to start considering the power of language because language, with all its subtleties and assumptions, has an impact that stretches beyond the speaker, and often sets the tone for what is considered acceptable. We don’t want this blasé phrase attached to the reports of COVID-19 casualties to propagate unquestioned assumptions and potentially de-prioritise those with long-term illnesses and disabilities. We are only as strong as our weakest healthcare systems in fighting COVID-19, and everyone – cancer or not, other pre-existing health conditions or not – is entitled to access quality health care in an equitable manner.
Perhaps, instead of adding the ‘underlying health conditions’ disclaimer to each announcement of lives lost, we could instead focus on how vaccines are improving the outcomes for those who are vulnerable and have contracted COVID-19. We have now been advised and encouraged by specialist medical experts – in cancer and other chronic diseases – that the vaccines are safe, effective, and especially important for those with any conditions on the list above.