My mother has never been the kind of lady who cries easily, but when I was a young boy of 13 or 14, I saw the grief in her eyes and the tears streaming down her face as I never had before the day she learned that her best friend had lost her “battle” with cancer. It was the 1970s, and cancer treatment was far less sophisticated, much less accurate and every bit as painfully toxic as it is today. We later found out from her husband that she had actually died from the treatment, that her body was free of cancer but her heart hadn’t survived the chemotherapy. She was 37 years old.
My experience as a boy, similar to the experience of so many others, led to the understanding that cancer was the enemy, and if you got it, you had to fight for your life and battle it with all your strength. My view didn’t change until a short while ago, when I started doing the research to write this article.
Turns out, using war metaphors to communicate about prevention and treatment of cancer is not really in our best interest. Dana Jennings, a writer for The New York Times and prostate cancer survivor, wrote a piece published March 15, 2010, about his experience with the language of cancer during his treatment for it. A couple of phrases stick out in reading it:
It pays to have a positive outlook, I think, but that in no way translates to “fighting” cancer. Cancer simply is. You can deny its presence in your body, cower at the thought or boldly state that you’re going to whup it. But the cancer does not care; and:
But after staggering through prostate cancer and its treatment — surgery, radiation and hormone therapy — the words “fight” and “battle” make me cringe and bristle.
A University of Michigan study, “The War on Prevention: Belicose Cancer Metaphors Hurt (Some) Prevention Intentions,” published online October 28, is the result of three studies covering different aspects of this phenomenon. David Hauser, a University of Michigan doctoral student in psychology, was the lead investigator for the study, and with his colleague Norbert Schwarz of the University of Southern California, found that exposure to language which equates cancer to an enemy degrades the message of cancer-preventing behaviors.
“Hearing metaphoric utterances is enough to change the way we think about a concept,” Hauser told Michigan News. “When we hear the phrase ‘win the battle against cancer,’ it forces us to think of cancer as if it’s an enemy that we are at war with.”
The authors found that cancer-preventing behaviors such as curbing consumption of alcohol, quitting smoking and lowering intake of salty foods dealt with limitation and restraint rather than confronting an enemy.
For example, in one of the studies, they asked the participants to list cancer-prevention behaviors that they would willingly perform. The request for one group metaphorically related cancer to an enemy, while a second group’s request contained no metaphors. The group with no metaphors produced a significantly longer list of prevention behaviors that they would perform than the metaphor-influenced group.
“This suggests that simply seeing war metaphors for cancer diminishes the extent to which these behaviors come to mind,” Hauser said.
Calling cancer an enemy, then, relieves us of the belief that we may have any direct connection to preventing it or to its appearance in our bodies. An enemy, after all, has its own motivations and reason for existence, whereas an illness such as cancer has its existence in a cause that we have connection to and may control by paying more attention to what we put in our bodies, how we allow doctors to treat us, the level of fitness we maintain and the things which we knowingly expose ourselves to.
Not calling cancer an “enemy” that we are “battling” but instead calling it an illness that we are dealing with frames the conversation more constructively. A portion of the Susan Sontag Foundation’s description of her 1978 nonfiction book Illness as Metaphor sums up the reality:
A cancer patient herself when she was writing the book, Sontag shows how the metaphors and myths surrounding certain illnesses, especially cancer, add greatly to the suffering of patients and often inhibit them from seeking proper treatment. By demystifying the fantasies surrounding cancer, Sontag shows cancer for what it is — just a disease.