What’s in a name? Fear for patients when cancer is in a hospital’s title

Names are like pills. In the smallest breadth, they encapsulate time and space, history and identity, and can instantly rupture presence and gush emotions. Have you ever come across your country’s name while abroad? There is always a second of recognition, a deep-rooted feeling of pride and belongingness. Your sight lingers on those few letters, re-reading them as you ignore the rest of the content.

That reaction is probably even more powerful when your GP refers you to an oncologist, and you apprehensively run into the imposing, merciless 3D letters of the signage that grimly announces you have just arrived at the Cancer Centre. An absurd feeling considering it is just the hospital’s name. Or is it?

Why names matter

We meticulously ponder naming our children and pets. Business owners know well the significance of a clever name, one that encompasses distinctiveness and opportunities. Occasionally, a name breaks its shell and hatches millions of loyal bearers, folks who not only follow but also identify themselves with it – just ask Yankees fans or Harley-Davidson riders. Words such as Apple and Amazon metamorphosed from their significance in their original bodies and flooded the globe. That’s how commanding a name can be.

Names drive emotions. For example, for many people, the word Coppelia reminds of the famous French ballet. If you have seen it and had a good time, that word might bring joyous memories of the show. The sight of that word alone brightens your mood. That’s for most people in the world, except for Cubans. For Cubans, the same word might spark an ice-cream craving since Coppelia is a popular ice cream parlour at the heart of Havana where thousands gather to quench the heat of the tropical sun. Hence, names similar to other visual signals can render an individualized set of moods that depends on each person’s life experience.

From personal emotions to international commerce, names carry an immeasurable impact on every aspect of life. Thus, if a myriad institutions, including nursing homes and independent clinics, are named to nurture, why aren’t the Cancer Centres?

Cancer Centres: A noble mission, an ill name

Across the list of the world’s 200 best-rated oncological centres, according to Newsweek, 83 bear the word cancer in either the institution, a department’s name or both; eight of them are among the top 10 listed. Cancer Centres are pragmatically titled by the situation they are solving – like fire stations or hurricane centres. But cancer, in contrast to the loss of material goods and meteorological events, rattles the very essence of your existence – both physically and mentally. Isn’t it then a contradiction to title the victims’ refuge with the name of the fiend?

Perhaps the reason is that emotions are constructed from personal and unique life experiences. Unless you or a loved one had or have cancer, that six-letter word just means a health condition, a scientific challenge, or hovering bad news no one wants to hear about – that’s what you have heard, read and accepted since you were born.

Those who work in health care do not see it from the same standpoint as patients. They cannot. Of course, they are sympathetic to the patients’ feelings and struggles, but they fight from a battlefield’s fortified position. For authorities, cancer is their focus, their main target, their best possible word to name the hospital.

Patients have a different perspective because the meaning changes if the beast knocks at your very door. For cancer is a word that dampens confidence and obscures purpose, a term that induces distress, fear, perhaps even guilt. A word that can be associated with death. For the set of emotions that the C-word triggers, even if unconsciously, depends not only on your antecedents and life history but also on your vantage point.

But, cancer is not the only possible name. Medical specialties such as cardiology, endocrinology and gastroenterology often do not name their institutions after the health conditions they treat. Moreover, the names of nearly half the previously mentioned listing of oncological centres refer to the area of medicine they cover: Oncology. An abstract term for many people, but at least one that does not hopelessly bandage a disease to patients.

For oncology is not the disease, but rather the science to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer, the resource that patients need, their only target, the best possible word to name the hospital.

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  • Jorge Cruz says:

    Dear Susan and Mike, Thank you for your insightful comments. I expected, of course, that there will be a broad spectrum of perspectives on this topic. I should say first that I too suffered the harrowing experience of having my mother struggle for years with and eventually pass of cancer. But my feelings were not the fabric of the article; it was factual science. The literature cited in the hyperlinks is only a fraction of the studies on the role of linguistic labels.
    I am not suggesting removing the word cancer from the dictionary. Cancer, as well as schizophrenia, are real conditions that we should acknowledge. I agree with you that health conditions should be named by what they are, but so hospitals. A hospital is not the same as a disease. Also, not everyone who visits a hospital is sick, suggesting so could induce a sort of nocebo effect or worsen an illness.
    I first thought about this when I arrived in Toronto in 2003 and saw the sign “SickKids” on the University campus. The message baffled me for years; it was only after reading Lisa Feldman Barret’s work that I realized what was wrong with it. I published an opinion on this in the Hamilton Spectator that might further explain my point of view.

  • Susan Inman says:

    As the wife of a husband who have lived through two different stage four cancers and as the mother of a daughter to has lived with schizophrenia for over twenty years, I have very different feelings about names than the author of this article.

    The BC Cancer Agency’s name conveys the high standards, no-nonsense approach to treating my husband’s life threatening illnesses. I am endlessly appreciative of this institution and think it has the perfect name.

    My daughter’s brain disorder is treated in the context of Canada’s disordered approach to severe psychotic disorders like hers. The Canadian public has no public mental illness literacy campaign that teaches them about these kinds of illnesses. This leads to delays in accessing appropriate treatment and these delays lead to longer durations of untreated psychosis which are linked to worse outcomes. Our mental health systems our only guided in part by scientific evidence and medical expertise. The alternative/psychiatric survivor movement, which often doubts even the existence of these illnesses, has increasingly been empowered and funded to have their perspectives guide the delivery of mental health care. Thus we fund endless mental wellness programs that are supposed to help everyone but which just create confusion about actual, severe illnesses.

    It’s hard to even come across the term ‘mental illness’ or any information about them in the overly funded anti-stigma campaigns. I discuss the problem with these expensive anti-stigma programs in this article:


  • Mike Fraumeni says:

    Very interesting perspective and thesis. Yes, for example the The Dr. Sandra Black Centre for Brain Resilience & Recovery at Toronto Sunnybrook is a centre as mentioned in the website below, primarily about various dementias but the word ‘dementia’ is not mentioned in the name of the Centre. Maybe something like the …… Centre for Aberrant Cellular Proliferation and Treatment. Cancer centres do, in some cases, treat benign conditions such as radiotherapy in Dupuytren’s disease since radiotherapy machines are mainly located in cancer care facilities at least here in Canada.


Jorge A. Cruz-Aguado


Jorge A. Cruz-Aguado, PhD, is the director of research at Diagnostics Biochem Canada and a former professor of the University of Havana. He lives in London, Ont.

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