The language of cancer: are war-like metaphors really helping or not?

A study due for publication in the January issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, further reinforces the idea that “cancer language” that emphasizes words like war, fight, battle, etc., may well be having harmful rather than positive effects.

The original article by Hauser and Schwartz, along with a public interest story in Time magazine based on this article, raises significant questions about whether the use of war-like metaphors can have seriously harmful effects because (to quote Dr. Hauser from the article in Time):

When you frame cancer as an enemy, that forces people to think about active engagement and attack behaviors as a way to effectively deal with cancer. That dampens how much people think about much they should limit and restrain themselves.

In other words, what Hauser and Schwartz actually found is that the war-like language about cancer is associated with an unwillingness of people to change behaviors that we know to come with cancer-related risks (continued smoking, poor dietary habits, etc.) — in those already diagnosed with cancer as well as in those who do not have cancer but are at risk for it (i.e., everyone else).

The use of war-like metaphors in the cancer lexicon is systemic, and no one is under any illusions about how difficult it might be to change that. Such language goes back to the “War on Cancer” initiative that led to the setting up of the National Cancer Institute here in America (and even further back in time than that). However, it is interesting to see Hauser and Schwartz stating that newer forms of language common in the management of prostate cancer (“active surveillance”, “watchful waiting”, etc.) may offer a paradigm for a gradual shift in the way we speak about cancer and its management into the future.

As is also noted in the article in Time, prior research by Semino et al. had indicated that war-like metaphors are associated with feelings of guilt and failure in patients who die of cancer in hospices, even though the patients have little to no control over their outcomes. There have been many other articles over the years that have drawn attention to the down-sides of the war-like metaphors commonly used in discussion of cancer and its management — by patients, family members, and the professional healthcare community.

For all of us, at some point, death becomes an inevitability, regardless of the reason. There comes a point in time when acceptance of that reality — by all relevant parties — is a necessary component of being able to die with a sense of dignity.

8 Responses

  1. For me, the “war-like language” gave me resolve to make changes and adjust. Adapt. Overcome. (Marine Corps language there).

    So, this all depends upon the individual. I am winning this fight. It’s all about positive attitude and change.

    If someone does not have the grey matter and willpower to make changes, are any words going to help or harm? Maybe some passive and peaceful words? (roll eyes).

    FIGHT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :-)

  2. There is no doubt in my mind that the language issue is very personal. Walt’s example of how war-like language was helpful for him exemplifies this. However, I think the take-away here is that it may be unhelpful for others, and so choice of language by the media and by healthcare professionsals may well need to be more nuanced than it sometimes is.

  3. As was stated, losing the war against cancer implies failure of the individual to fight hard enough. There may be an implication that engaging in behavior which increases the statistical risk of getting cancer is a sign of weakness of character. No one intends to get cancer or to die from it prematurely. But the well tend to look down on the sick, just as the rich look down on the poor. Personally, I never thought of cancer treatments for my prostate cancer as weapons of war. I just wanted to live long enough to enjoy each day as I do now.

  4. Well, there are many characteristics of human behavior that cause health problems. Those are weaknesses of character, let’s not beat around the bush here.

    I was a fat slob in 2009. I am no more. So, I am not throwing stones here.

    If someone has a prostate cancer diagnosis and can’t summon the willpower to make the necessary changes that at least they can make, well, that’s a glaring weakness of character. Like the smoker who gets lung cancer, and keeps smoking.

    And, for what it’s worth, I don’t know anyone in my life that looks down on the sick. Guess I must just run in a different circle of people.

  5. Hauser says that medical professionals and media outlets should try to help expand the way that people think about the disease. He cites the “watchful waiting,” a passive method of treating prostate cancer, as one such example.

    In a story against war-like terms “watchful waiting” is described as “a passive method”. As if anything less than a full on assault is somehow wimpy, not noble.

    I do not object to war-like terms, just the lack of recognition of strategy as being a part of any war. Charging the enemy may be the best course at times, but a careful retreat is a valid war decision as well.

  6. War-like slogans may be good for the folks who are winning. I am glad to hear that someone is winning.

    I was not a fat slob and was in excellent health when diagnosed. I have had a lot of aggressive treatments but I am losing the war. I do feel some guilt about the losing. I think of it more like a boxing match where a welterweight is matched with a heavyweight. Or maybe showing up to a gun fight with a knife.


  7. Bill,

    I can’t imagine what you could feel guilty about, and I do not know how to say that without risking an implication that the feeling is not real. I know it is real, mine is a not treating quilt. Shy of finding a cure for cancer yourself, no more could be asked, you have fought, shared and encouraged.

  8. Yeah, Bill, your situation is not even within this area of discussion. It’s out of your hands. This is about those that can do something, and don’t. (Or at least that’s where I was moving the talk.)

    Hang in there Sir!

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