Did you know that the words you use to describe your health can actually influence both your physical and mental health? In today’s post I will describe how that can happen and what to do about it.

I’ve written previously about how our language determines both what we are able to perceive and how we perceive it.  https://www.mortylefkoe.com/how-our-language-determines-our-reality/

Elderly Common Diseases in word collageToday I will show you how many specific words we use to describe reality, including words we use to describe our health, already contain meaning in their very definition. So when we think we are objectively describing reality we are often adding meaning that isn’t necessarily true.

Are you really in pain?

Take what seems to be a simple statement of reality: “I am in pain.” For someone uttering those words, that is a statement of fact, not an interpretation. You might give that “reality” the meaning: I have a serious illness. Or, I won’t be able to work today. Or, I’m punishing myself for not doing something I should have done. When you identify any meaning you have attributed to any event and then distinguish it from the event (e.g., I am in pain), the meaning will dissolve and you will be left with nothing but the event.

But is that statement of the event (I am in pain) really an objective, meaningless description of the event? I contend the answer is , no. The word “pain” is not merely a word describing reality; it is a word loaded with emotional connotations that already has a lot of meaning, albeit different for different people.

The online version of the Merriman-Webster dictionary defines pain as: 1. The physical feeling caused by disease, injury, or something that hurts the body. 2. Mental or emotional suffering: sadness caused by some emotional or mental problem. 3. Someone or something that causes trouble or makes you feel annoyed or angry.

In other words, even before we add unconsciously- and automatically-created meaning to the word “pain” in a given situation, the very definition of the word has already added meaning that goes beyond the actual event.

The “reality” is that you have a throbbing sensation three inches in back of your right eye, or you have a pinching sensation in your right knee, etc.

Just telling yourself that you are in “pain” leads many people to having various thoughts and feelings that go beyond the actual physical sensations. As a result, they can experience more discomfort and for a longer period than if they only described the actual sensations.

Don’t call yourself “sick”

While I was writing this post I got a note from someone who said in part: “As it so happens I have been sick now for about 22 days with a nasty virus

[cold and flu].” She went on to complain that while her “normal” level of enjoyment of life was around an “8,” it had decreased to about 4 as a result of being “sick.”

I explained to her that she probably wasn’t giving an unconscious and automatic meaning to “being sick” in the present, but that the very definition of the word was reducing her enjoyment of life. Dictionary.com defines “sick” as: “1. Afflicted with ill health or disease; ailing. 2. Affected with nausea; inclined to vomit. 3. Deeply affected with some unpleasant feeling, as of sorrow, disgust, or boredom.”

Apart from the actual stuffed nose and her other actual physical symptoms, which obviously would be affecting her quality of life, describing herself as “sick” was probably the main reason her enjoyment of life had declined as much as it had.

How this applies to “my cancer”

Because I know how words purportedly describing reality can have all sorts of emotional connotations, I am always on the lookout for how my language is coloring my reality.  But it took one of my readers to point out a phrase I used repeatedly that showed I was not walking my talk.

Esther wrote in a comment to a recent blog post: “Just like the meaning we give to the meaningless events, the cancer is not ‘yours’; it’s a condition you have, not an inseparable part of who you truly are.”

Thank you, Esther, right you are. Saying this is “my cancer” has me experience it as a part of “me”, as a part of whom I am, whether I intend that or not. I had a folder in my mail program titled “my cancer” and a section at the end of every recent blog post titled, “an update on my cancer.” I used that phrase in almost every conversation I had about my current health condition. So obviously I had to stop using the word “my.”

What meaning does the word “cancer” have?

But I quickly realized that even the word “cancer,” which seems to be a clear-cut description of reality, actually isn’t. Cancer is another word where the definition contains a lot of meaning.

My online dictionary says cancer is “the disease caused by an uncontrolled division of abnormal cells in a part of the body.” But then it offers a second definition: “a practice or phenomenon perceived to be evil or destructive and hard to contain or eradicate.” The example of this definition that is offered is: “racism is a cancer sweeping across Europe.”

What images do you have when you hear the word “cancer”? … Or when you are told someone you know “has cancer”? … What do you think and feel? … For most people cancer is something “bad”; a terrible thing has happened. It must be fought and destroyed.

How do you think that the actual definition of the word cancer affects you (especially if you are the one to whom that diagnosis has been given)? We immediately think that the cancer is a “practice or phenomenon perceived to be evil or destructive and hard to contain or eradicate.” Thus it needs to be fought, to be stopped, to be killed. And what does impact does that meaning have on your mental and physical state?

Fighting activates the stress mechanism

When we have to stop to fight something, our body’s “fight or flight” mechanism is immediately activated. Our bodies are filled with a number of “stress hormones” designed to enable us to deal more effectively with a perceived threat to our survival. That response is very useful when there is a real threat to our survival. The problem arises when this mechanism is set off very frequently or if it is rarely turned off.

Among the many deleterious effects of constant stress is an impairment of our immune system. As a result, stress has been implicated in most serious illnesses, including diabetes, various heart diseases, and cancer.

Given the common definition of cancer, it is no wonder that Western allopathic medicine is focused on killing cancer cells with radiation, chemotherapy, and/or surgery. If the malignant cells are “killed” and you don’t get new ones in five years, you are considered “cured.”

Here’s another way to look at it

Everyone has some cells that have mutated and are growing out of control at any given moment, but our immune system is usually able to keep them under control and you never get a tumor.  So you can describe a collection of those out of control cells as “cancer” when a tumor forms or you can say that what’s happening is my immune system is not doing its job and needs to be improved so that it can.

If you use the former description, you will want to kill the cancer before it kills you. If you use the latter description, you will focus on enhancing your immune system so that it can do its job in clearing the body of cells that don’t belong there. That might include using chemotherapy or something else to slow the progression of the multiplying cells until the immune system has been restored to full function.

This latter description of your condition would result in focusing on creating a healthy body and immune system and not on “fighting” cancer. Some of the ways to do that might include nutritional supplements, non-toxic interventions like high dose Vitamin C and cannabinoids, exercise, getting rid of stress, a healthy diet, social support, a strong desire to live, etc.

By the way, when I asked a Chinese qui gong master if he could see the cancer in my body when he was “scanning” it, he replied that “cancer” was a term used by Western medicine, a term he did not use. He said what he “saw” was an energy blockage in my colon and liver. At the time I was not aware that the ”cancer” in my colon had metastasized to my liver.

Be careful how you use language to describe your physical condition

To summarize, although it is important to learn how to stop giving meaning to events in reality, it is just as important to be careful about the words you are using to describe reality. Very often the definition of those words already contain meaning that goes way beyond the actual physical (or mental) event. Get in the habit of noticing those words and then find other words or ways to describe your condition so that the words you use to describe reality you don’t cause you additional problems.



(Notice that I changed the title of this note and stopped using the phrase “my cancer)

I’m in Chicago at the Block Center as I write this, here for my third round of chemo. I have a strong intuitive sense that all the things I am doing apart from my chemo are healing my immune system and my body and that I am making major progress.

I have asked my oncologist for a PET scan to see exactly how much I have improved and I intend to have that done next week when I get home.

I will keep you informed.

I cannot thank you enough for your messages of love and support. And I know that many of you who do not write are sending me love and support also. Expressing love and experiencing being loved can enhance the immune system. My immune system is improving my leaps and bounds.

Thanks for loving me. I love you too.


Thanks for reading my blog. Please post your questions or comments on how the words we use to describe events in the world, including words that describe the state of our health, contain meaning and can affect our emotional and behavioral responses to the event. Disagreement is as welcome as agreement. Your comments add value for thousands of readers. I love to read them all and I will respond to as many as I can.

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Copyright © 2014 Morty Lefkoe