Language and Cancer
Updated: Jan 10
You would have to be avoiding all social media or conventional media not to be aware that the words “battle,” “fight,” “lost,” “won” etc. have become synonymous with the experience of cancer.
“When I die tell the world what happened.
Plain and simple.
No euphemisms, no flowery language, no metaphors.”
Immortal words written by Lisa Bonchek Adams (Lisabadamscom, 2014) before she died from breast cancer.
The terminology around grief, death, and dying led to a recent conversation about the language we use to refer to cancer patients. This in turn has led to copious amounts of reading on this subject to try to determine if language is helpful or detrimental during illnesses, death, and grieving. All of the newspaper articles, news items, and social media posts we have seen have one thing in common: we use our language as metaphors to refer to these events, more specifically in “war” metaphors and/or “journey” metaphors. Although we are noticing a lot more donning of battle armour than compass reading.
You would have to be avoiding all social media or conventional media not to be aware that the words “battle,” “fight,” “lost,” “won” etc. have become synonymous with the experience of cancer. Do they originate from the patients, carers, Health Care Professionals, or Journalists? And does it matter who uses the labels; are they useful or detrimental. These are the questions we found ourselves asking and looking for answers to.
The earliest written reference to this we could find was with regards to Susan Sontag who raised this issue in her book Illness as Metaphor in 1978 (Sontag, 1978). In the book she challenged the prevailing attitude of patient control; does the patient have control over whether they became sick or could “battle” an illness? Her view was that illness is a biological condition and using metaphors to refer to the disease had a shameful or discouraging effect on patients. As a cancer patient herself at that time, the notion that patients had some control over whether they developed certain diseases or had control over whether the treatment would work, or not, was offensive to her.
Following on from this in 1999, the late journalist John Diamond was referred to in the BMJ (McCartney, 2014), and quoted as saying “My antipathy to the language of battles and fights has….everything to do with a hatred of the sort of morality which says that only those who fight hard against their cancer survive it or deserve to survive it – the corollary being that those who lose the fight deserve to do so.” So if the evidence points to respected journalists historically opposing such “battle” language, how did it become endemic within society? Did it slowly creep in via other journalists or can we answer this question by looking at whether patients, their friends and family (carers), and/or healthcare professions (HCP) find the use of metaphors surrounding cancer useful in any way.
On a mission to answer these questions is Professor Elena Semino and colleagues at Lancaster University, who have spent the last few years studying the frequency of use of metaphors with regards to cancer and how they affect different people of the three groups identified above: patients, carers and HCP. Her video lecture explaining the study and the results can be found here: https://t.co/KScIADr0ts . They used sophisticated software to analyse 1.5 million words gathered from open social media sites and interviews, and confirmed that the two most common metaphors used were what she termed “violence” and “journey.” We are all familiar with “violence” words – battling, winning, losing, fighting, war on cancer etc. “Journey” words and phrases are also familiar – “it’s the start of a long journey,” “I’m on the road to recovery” etc. Semino at el.’s (2015) findings were that language seems to polarise in this area; it is either hated or loved.
On the positive side, it is used by fundraisers such as Cancer Research UK who use journey metaphors such as “Race for Life” to inspire and encourage, and Macmillan who use “Survivorship” to motivate patients who have “beaten” their cancer. Semino et al. (2016) also found that patients use journey metaphors “in a very empowering way” and violence metaphors are used by patients to find “purpose” and “meaning” by defining themselves as “fighters.”
Conversely Semino et al. (2015) found they can also have a detrimental effect. Some people find they “don’t want to be on a road they don’t know how to navigate” and how do people with cancer battle with themselves? Cancer patient Kate Granger (Granger, 2014) wrote in The Guardian newspaper; “‘She lost her brave fight.’ If anyone mutters those words after my death, wherever I am, I will curse them. … I do not want to feel a failure about something beyond my control.” Granger is a medical doctor and was diagnosed with terminal cancer prior to writing this article which makes you wonder how someone who knows they will die from an incurable disease can “fight” it? I recall one of my friends vowing to “fight all the way” when he was diagnosed with bowel cancer a few years ago, but then again he was an ex-member of the British army so the terminology was part of his identity. The “fighting” talk slowly waned as his cancer metastasised and it was clear that he was terminally ill. In retrospect, I wonder if he ever felt a “failure” for not “beating” it or if he ended his days satisfied that he had accepted any appropriate treatment that could have helped him and was accepting of his situation. However, my three year old nephew died from cancer and any references to a 'battle' with cancer is offensive to my family. Put simply: he was a vulnerable child with an illness that the medical professionals couldn't treat at that time, using battle metaphors is hugely inappropriate.
My point here is: however you choose to label yourself or what language you choose to use with regards to your body and your life is just that: your choice. If you find battle or journey statements and metaphors helpful to deal with the psychological effects of being diagnosed and treated for cancer surely we should respect that. However, I think if we impose it on someone that’s where the problems arise: we are imposing our expectations on them. That they will “battle,” that they will “win” as if somehow it is within their control. Contributing to making someone feel guilty or a failure is disempowering and surely unethical.
My conclusion is that there is the illusion of control with cancer if we use metaphors and perhaps that’s what someone needs in order to psychologically cope with the diagnosis of what used to be referred to as “The Big C.” Does the thought of our impending death suddenly become a battle that needs to be fought? We are one step closer to death every day, whether healthy or not, and we need to accept that as individuals and society.
If our loved one “battles” and “loses” their “fight” with cancer we are left to grieve their death. With metaphoric expression there is the possibility that families and friends will be left wondering if their loved one did not “fight” hard enough or if they could have done more to help them. This can potentially lead to further distress, anger, and guilt.
My view is that a good death leads to good grief and that can only happen if we discuss end of life issues open and honestly in whatever language is appropriate for each individual. As end-of-life doula Anna Lyons (Lyons, 2016) says “Death is not the loss of a battle. Death is a natural part of life.”
*As an addendum to the original post, you might be interested to hear there is a chapter in my book Grief Demystified on what to say/not to say to the bereaved*
This post was originally published at www.thegriefgeek.com.
Granger, K. (2014, April 25). Having cancer is not a fight or a battle. Retrieved 8 May, 2016, from http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/apr/25/having-cancer-not-fight-or-battle
McCartney, M. (2014). The fight is on: Military metaphors for cancer may harm patients. Retrieved 11 May, 2016, from http://www.bmj.com/content/349/bmj.g5155
Lisabadamscom. (2014, 10 October). Re-post of "When I die" - Lisa Bonchek Adams. [Weblog]. Retrieved 8 May 2016, from http://lisabadams.com/2014/10/10/re-post-die/
Lyons, A. (2016, March 21). "Hospitals are not a good place to die". Retrieved 8 May, 2016, from http://www.netdoctor.co.uk/healthy-living/news/a26269/hospitals-are-not-a-place-to-die/
Semino, E., Demjen, Z., Demmen, J., Koller, V., Payne, S., Hardie, A., & Rayson, P. (2015). The online use of Violence and Journey metaphors by patients with cancer, as compared with health professionals: a mixed methods study. BMJ Supportive and Palliative Care. doi: 10.1136/bmjspcare-2014-000785
Sontag, S. (1978). Illness as metaphor. United States: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.Today I'm hugely conflicted.