Illustration for article titled Why Its Harmful to Describe Cancer as a War

When people talk about cancer, they often resort to the language of war – e.g. Mary lost her brave fight with cancer. Many compelling objections have been made against the use of such "battle metaphors," and a growing body of evidence suggests that, for some people, they can actually be harmful.


Above: American Civil War, Union captures Fort Fisher, 1865 | Via LoC

"The message that people get from the media and from charity campaigns is that they have to 'fight' and 'beat' their cancer," says Elena Semino, Professor of Linguistics and Verbal Art at Lancaster University's ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science, in a statement:

Although well meaning, the effect of using war metaphors like this can be damaging to some people ... If people are diagnosed with terminal cancer, then they are spoken of as 'losing their battle'. Many patients are unhappy with their illness being discussed in this way. Blame is being put on the patient, and there's almost a sense that, if you are dying, you must have given up and not have fought hard enough.


Or, as Aria Jones puts it:

Perhaps you have never been in a real-life, actual fight or battle. Kindly allow me to explain, then, that a fight, battle, war, skirmish, or what-the-fuck-ever else you want to call it, is something that either adversary reasonably could win with superior manpower and/or firepower. Kindly allow me also to remind you that there is no cure for cancer. That's why it's not, you know, called "Breast-itis" or "Seasonal Pancreatic Syndrome" or "Bone Marrow Allergies." It's fucking cancer. And no one has come up with anything like, oh, a CURE, that—in keeping with your battle metaphor—can be compared to superior firepower.

That leaves us with superior manpower. Are you really fucking going there? Are you truly comfortable telling a cancer patient that, if his cancer doesn't GTFO stat, it's because he didn't try hard enough?

Semino, who has been studying the use of metaphors in the way we talk about cancer since 2012, does note that "for some patients, some of the time, the idea of being engaged in a fight" can be motivating. I think the real takeaway, as she put it, is that " we are all different, and different metaphors work for different people, and at different times" – but it is imperative that one be cognizant of that fact, when speaking with someone about their terminal illness, while discussing their cancer as a perplexing and poorly understood biological process, or when writing about them, after they're gone.



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