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MIHE Blog News, views and insights from Macmillan International Higher Education

A Cancer Glossary By Brian Lobel

by Brian Lobel 21st May 2019

Brian Lobel shares his reflections on cancer through a personal cancer glossary.

In the conclusion of Theatre & Cancer, my book exploring the difficult relationship between theatre and, well, cancer, I wrote: This article features my personal Cancer Glossary but I’m also sharing glossaries by three magnificent writers/thinkers/activists/performers. There is no such thing as a singular, objective, universally-accepted language to talk about cancer and our experience of illness. I hope the beauty and diversity of the glossaries show that as clearly as anything.

xo. Brian

A Cancer Glossary by Brian Lobel


When you arrive for your testicular cancer surgery and someone is playing the flute in the waiting area. While I have no doubt whether some people might find comfort in hearing a volunteer flute player in the hospital waiting area… I don’t want to be a person whom other people think they need to comfort. I’m fine! Promise.

Useful cancer performances:
When almost every cancer performance ends with the shaking of a bucket for change for this cancer charity or that cancer charity, or when charities think I’m an asshole for not agreeing to perform my cancer shows for free.

Desire to create a narrative:

When I walked home from the doctor’s office after being diagnosed with cancer and began writing, not because I wanted to make a cancer performance, but because my body had never experienced anything like this before, and like an explorer, I felt a strong desire to create a travelogue and capture this journey.

Narrative wreckage:
When staring at my ultrasounds with their growths, which I didn’t understand but which HAD to be cancer, made my travelogue seem totally insufficient.

When I’m thankful for the awareness-raising advertisement in my dorm room shower which reminded me to perform a testicular self-exam; also when I’m enraged any time I’m asked to buy something in pink or yellow for the sake of ‘awareness’.

No dispassionate audience members:
When I’ve done a Q&A and I can almost predict which audience member’s raised shaking hand will end with a teary-eyed confessional. This is almost always because the questioner thought they were just going to a show, but for 60 minutes, and despite themselves, they instead sat in the dark and thought about their friend, mother, grandfather, lover, etc.

No dispassionate makers of cancer work:
When I still get overwhelmed with emotion when I perform or read one specific monologue from BALL, about the abdominal surgery I had 18 years ago.

Staring and passing:
When I know what I look like walking down the street, half my original body weight, bald, eyes sunken into my head, looking like a walking reminder of death. And when I reflect on the many friends I have whose cancer does not ‘look’ like cancer and how much easier it would be if they could just look a bit sicker and thus more deserving of time off, special treatment and the love that comes with visible malignancy.

Cancer stories without an ending:
When I continued to write multiple sequels to BALL because I wasn’t over it and some people wanted me to be over it, and it was out of my body, and my chance of recurrence was infinitesimally small, and yet the scars remain, my parents still tell me when they bump into my old nurses at the library, and how people from my home town still remind me of how ‘good’ I look, never allowing me to forget how sick I really was. How I remain so filled with guilt that my story has a medically definitive happy ending while so many friends’ stories are ongoing, complicated or have ended in death.

Intersectional cancer stories:
When I recognise how my white, male, middle-class and location privileges pervaded, in ways both subtle or obvious, every inch of my medical treatment, emotional treatment, pain medication and survival outcomes. And how cancer, with all of its charity fundraisers and marketability remains a privileged disease: not because it only affects people with privilege (it doesn’t) but because unlike people with mental health problems or physical or invisible disabilities, no one questioned my access needs when I had cancer and no one thought I was a scrounger or an inconvenience.

The differend:
When an email, or Facebook message, or phone call – which happened about 10 times while writing this book – about a recent cancer diagnosis from a friend, or even a stranger, can stop my day in its tracks. Because I know that feeling of navigating a wholly new language and worldview and because it can an honour to be thought of in times of need, I often take on the emotional labour of stopping my activities, calling, cycling over for a coffee, prescribing books to read or episodes of Sex and the City to watch as a distraction. I don’t even know if I’m helpful when I talk to these other people, but the Other calls, and I definitely feel obligated to be present.

When, despite my deepest cynicism and 15 years as a professional patient, and despite hating cancer performances which end with stirring thank yous and messages to live, laugh, love and carpe diem, I still feel, when I do reflect, thankful every day for those who supported me through illness and those who continue to teach me about illness, disability and how we can all learn to see each other better. Sentimental or not, that’s the truth.

More glossaries…

Emily Underwood-Lee is a performer and Research Fellow at the George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling. Read Emily’s glossary

Gia Jones is an alternative educator working primarily in urban environments to promote the multicultural history and stories of the communities with which she works. Read Gia’s glossary

Lynn Ruth Miller is an award-winning comedian and cabaret artist who started performing at the age of 70. Read Lynn Ruth’s glossary
Featured image by @ruvimnogaphoto. Available on Unsplash via the Unsplash license.