Re-evaluating How We Talk About the "War on Cancer"

It seems odd to me that we use harsh, warlike words when cancer patients are most vulnerable. Although there are numerous ways to explain cancer, how we phrase it affects how we see it. We must never lose sight of a cancer patient's feelings. The words we choose shape our view of the disease and its treatment.

Words and images greatly influence how we understand the experiences of cancer patients. This includes the practical challenges researchers face in finding better treatment outcomes.

Re-evaluating how we talk about cancer

We often hear, "We need to win the war on cancer." I feel using this aggressive military language is not helpful. It does not always reflect the experiences of cancer patients. It also oversimplifies the difficulties of cancer research. Cancer has claimed the lives of many well-known people. The media often alludes to war when they discuss these people. Using phrases like, "Despite their best efforts, they lost the battle against cancer, a real fighter's fight."

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In my opinion, the overuse of military metaphors while discussing cancer does more harm than good. Cancer has been inextricably linked to war rhetoric since U.S. President Richard Nixon declared "The War on Cancer" in 1971. The use of military jargon can cause discomfort and disempowerment for certain people. From a personal standpoint, I think it is time to re-evaluate how we approach cancer.1

Being attentive to a patient's feelings

We should always be attentive to patients and their family's feelings when discussing cancer. Some experts disagree with treating sickness as a conflict that can be "won or lost." We must find the correct language to express our enthusiasm for research. And we must have faith in its potential to help people.

We must be upfront and honest about these challenges. I have discussed military jargon metaphors used by cancer patients throughout my journey with the disease. But I have always been surprised by how divided views are. Some people believe they have failed if they lose the battle. Some patients might also view this metaphor and phrases like "passed away" as euphemisms.

The war metaphor

However, some patients and their families desire to feel like they are actively battling the disease. They may find the concept beneficial. War has long been used as a metaphor to illustrate the belief that, with focused effort, medicine may fight cancer. I think it's important to still recognize that cancer is extremely complex and presents a significant challenge.

It is, of course, permissible for people to speak freely about their illnesses. And for their loved ones to use the same language to express theirs.

Speaking honestly and openly

I feel we should not hide cancer behind colorful metaphors. We should speak openly and honestly about this devastating disease. It should be acceptable to say that someone has cancer. And that they have recovered from it or that they have died from it. Perhaps we can become more resistant to metaphor thinking.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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