Fighting Battles And The Language Of Cancer


Media portrayals of cancer as “a battle to be fought”, and its focus on ‘brave fighters’ beating the odds, can lead to feelings of guilt and failure in people with a terminal diagnosis, according to research conducted by Elena Semino, Professor of Linguistics and Verbal Art from the ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science based at Lancaster University, UK.

“The message that people get from the media and from charity campaigns is that they have to ‘fight’ and ‘beat’ their cancer. 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.
Professor Semino and her colleagues have been studying the use of metaphors in the way we talk about cancer since 2012. As part of their research they have analysed 1.5 million words taken from interviews and online forum discussions involving cancer patients, family carers and health professionals. The team found that the type of metaphors people chose to use when describing their cancer reflected and affected how they viewed and experienced their illness.
For some patients, some of the time, the idea of being engaged in a fight is motivating. Some people say with pride that “I’m such a fighter”, and they find a sense of meaning and purpose and identity in that. The study showed that we are all different, and different metaphors work for different people, and at different times.
According to Professor Semino, metaphors help people to express ideas that are particularly sensitive and emotional, and are therefore especially helpful. Rather than discouraging people from using any type of metaphor that may be helpful to them, she is working with the NHS to produce a metaphor manual, featuring many examples of metaphors produced by other cancer patients.
As metaphors are a tool for making sense of our experiences, when you are vulnerable and dying you should have as many tools at your disposal as possible, so that you can choose the one that suits you best at that time.
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